Saturday, 29 March 2008

Where was the blood?

I'm still trying to figure out why There Will Be Blood was called There Will Be Blood. Of course, I don't really know why Magnolia was called Magnolia, the difference being that I liked Magnolia and and I only wanted to like There Will Be Blood. In principle, it was a great idea. It had Daniel Day Lewis in it, being an obsessional lunatic. It had burning oil rigs. I was realistic enough not to expect it to have car chases, one of the things without which I believe no film is complete. I was even happy enough to accept this and move on to looking forward to Daniel Day Lewis.

Hmmm. Dan is special. He can get away with stuff no-on else could try. The Unbearable Lightness of Being is one of the best examples; I actually bought the idea that Dan was attractive enough to get women to get into bed with him just by asking. Not because he was that pretty, though in those pre-The-Boxer days when his nose was still straight, he was one of the best looking men in showbiz. He simply had whatever spark it is that lets an actor get away with anything, including dialogue that ought to make you burst out laughing. Years later he strides through The Last of the Mohicans and makes the film work not just by being the most athletic action man you ever saw, but by being the only person in the movie who can make the dialogue sound remotely like something people might actually say. So, pretty much, my attitude is, if you've got a body of water and you need someone to walk across it, Dan's your man.

And Dan doesn't let me down. Everything else is too weird for words, but Dan owns the film. Actually it's no exaggeration to say he's the only thing in most of it. He's in almost every scene, and when he's not on screen it's only so that he can make an entrance at any moment. He doesn't just have all the best lines - most of the time he's the only person with any lines. There are only four or five other featured characters, and only two manage to get any real screen time. Daniel Plainview's adopted son HW is on screen for much of the movie, but he's almost wordless until an hour into the film and he's struck deaf and dumb only a little later. So he doesn't get much dialogue in. Daniel Plainvview's opponent in the film, Eli Sunday, is the only other character who gets to say more than a few sentences. He actually gets quite long monologues, all of which underline that he's a self-deluding religious lunatic and a deeply creepy person to have around. Between them, Eli and Daniel do pretty much all the talking in the nearly three hours of the movie.

Around about now I ought to be saying that the film is actually a face-off between the greedy, oil-obsessed, manipulative and unscrupulous Plainview and the creepy religiously obsessed Eli Sunday. But the movie doesn't actually stick to its theme. The characters don't interact enough on screen to get a sense of any conflict unfolding between them.

Well, it's a Paul Thomas Anderson film. It's expected to be all over the place. The unspoken deal is that at the end, all the things which were apparently scattered will be brought into congruence again. Doesn't happen this time. The final act unfolds as a two hander between Plainview and Sunday, Plainview on the edge of senility and collapse and Sunday utterly compromised and bankrupt in every way. It's an astonishing piece of work, steeped in hatred and strong emotion and climaxing in death, but it just doesn't seem to connect to the rest of the film. I still don't know what the plan was. I did find myself thinking that it was playing out in a bowling alley because it was no longer safe to let Daniel Day Lewis work in an area with carpeting. Or that it hadn't originally been a bowling alley, but after Dan ate all the carpet, there was no other thing to dress the set as.

Weird movie. It's not that it has an astonishing - and sometimes hammy - performance from Dan at the centre, it's that it's genuinely hard to see what else it's got. No-one else is working at the same level, and it's not through lack of talent - it because they're not given anything else to do. There's just Daniel. Full stop. The first fifteen minutes of the movie unfold in complete silence as Daniel digs his first hole in the ground and makes his first strike, completely alone and with a ton of trouble. He falls down a shaft, breaks his leg, hauls himself back out of the hole and drags himself into town to cash in. And digs another shaft and another. Other people arrive on the scene, and still no voices are heard. The first human voice in the film is at least twenty minutes in, as Plainview introduces himself to a town meeting he's going to try to hustle into selling him an oil lease. And that voice, almost always quiet and yet utterly dominant, is pretty much the only real voice the film allows itself. It ought to be enough, but for me it was not. There Will Be Blood is an extraordinary paradox; an astonishing performance without a movie around it.