Oh I remember seeing There Will Be Blood in the theater back in 2007 with a couple of my friends back in ye olde bachelor days. In the theater, the movie has a pretty staggering impact, as the story of Daniel Plainville is told against a backdrop of large big screen sized canvases – beautiful poetic images that are almost dialogue free at times, and superb cinematography. What was interesting seeing it in the convenience of my living room was how little there was underneath the film. Folks remember the Daniel Day Lewis performance and Paul Thomas Anderson’s direction no doubt – but the movie seen today exists more as a series of set pieces without any real insights into its hero.
Yes, Lewis’ performance is extraordinary. From the time we see him arrive from God knows where, Plainview is captivating. Speaking with a quirky, perhaps Eastern sort of accent, he is a shark, an oil acquiring machine. He learns of the Sunday ranch in California, and then convinces Old Man Sunday to sell him the drilling rights at a cheap price (as opposed to selling it to Standard for instance). Alas, one of Old Man Sunday’s kids Eli is a burgeoning preacher and wants to build a church. This creates a lifelong tension as Eli and Plainview are trying to gain control of which way the community is headed.
We remember the moments here. There is a lovely scene where there is an accident that renders Plainview’s son deaf. The burning derricks and the view of the community trying to put the fire out is breathtaking cinematography, all playing in silence. Later, when the need to confess and be reborn in Church (for completely Machiavellian images) appears for Plainview, his confession about his sins against his son is another staggering scene. We also remember the final scene with the famous milkshake quote, What is interesting is how beautifully this is all shot, and the intensity of Lewis’ performance, but what is Thomas’ goal? The movie lacks introspection about Plainview’s own attitude about things. He doesn’t have regrets – or for that matter any real dimension, though the movie successfully fools us into thinking he does. Indeed, there is little sense when Plainview is lying there in the bowling alley that he actually learned anything – or that we learned anything.
Seeing the movie 5 years later a second time, it does not hold up as well. Without any moral thrust behind it, and without anything really to say about Plainview or the situation, Anderson leaves this as largely an exercise in style and an excuse for Lewis to go nuts. As a technical and acting exercise, it is actually very well done, but it holds us at arm’s length. It’s just a character study, but the character shows no real complexity – just some evidence that he MIGHT be complex. There Will Be Blood was a striking film in 2007, but now it tends to disappear into thin air.
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