While “There Will Be Blood” hasn’t been a box office stud it’s being called a movie that will never be forgotten, which it may become, whether anyone has seen it or not.
The people that do never see it will think that it has something to do with milkshakes and bowling pins. Of course those that never saw The Shining will always remember that movie being something about an axe and Johnny Carson. It’s no surprise to me that Blood has entered into the public consciousness as The Shining did, as through my eyes I can confidently say that the former has influenced the latter exponentially.
Aside from quotable lines some of the other similarities include a larger than life performance by a highly regarded actor; performances that while the films were still fresh people complained they were perhaps too exaggerated. Then there’s the unsettling wide shots and long takes with drawn out silences and the post modern music that heightens the tension; some incidental moments are even by the same composer. When P.T. Anderson claimed his movie was more like a horror film in last week’s issue of Entertainment Weekly it’s obvious he wasn’t lying.
It’s one of the things I love about Blood. Its willingness to really let loose and unhinge itself from anything human. These character’s represent the worst of their kinds.
Over at Jim Emerson’s Scanners (“Biggest Acting, Best and Worst; Over the Top, Ma!”) there’s talk about over acting and when it’s applicable and when it isn’t. (He also makes comparisons to The Shining.) I responded to the article with this: “If there’s a level of truth in the performance, and when I say truth, I mean emotional truth, then as far as I’m concerned the actor can be as over the top as he wants.” In some instances it’s left up to the viewer to find that truth. It doesn’t help if the creator of the films cheats…will come back to this. Being truthful and unlikable are two different things. Truth can sometimes be even more poignant when the character isn’t likable in the least.
And people complained about Plainview (as played by Daniel Day Lewis) not being likable, but you don’t go to see Taxi Driver because Travis Bickle is likable, you don’t sit down to watch Scarface’s Tony Montana because you need a friend. You don’t watch The Shining because you want to give Jack Torrence a hug. You watch these films because seeing someone lose their mind and leave their soul in the back seat of a taxi cab is an intriguing process to behold.
You’ll also know Tony Montana‘s and Travis Bickle’s pop cultural catchphrases even if you haven’t see their respective movies. So why is everyone worried that Blood movie won’t be taken seriously because pop culture has grabbed onto a few choice lines. It’s happened before and I have to say Taxi Driver and The Shining remain two of my most cherished movies.
A BLACKENED SOUL
Although Plainview is one of these tarnished souls it’s a misrepresentation to say that he doesn’t have redeeming qualities and not unlike De Niro’s Bickle he never tries to reach out to save what’s left of his own humanity, as charred black as it may be. People say Plainview doesn’t care about his son, but the way he hauls off on Sunday after the oil well explosion says to me otherwise. And while he meets his brother-in-law with skepticism, it’s healthy skepticism, and he ends up welcoming him – willing to share everything. To just say that Plainview doesn’t care I think shows peoples’ unwillingness to see humanity in what is ultimately a ruthless human being.
As I mention in my review of Blood it’s almost as if Plainview is digging towards hell in the beginning and he never stops that downward haul. The earth bleeds black blood much like I imagine his own body does. When he stares up at the fire spewing from his well covered in black he almost appears like a demon sneering at the heavens.
I could continue to praise this film until the dogs come home, but that wouldn’t be fair, because in the end and perhaps not the very end, which has become the pop culture phenomenon that it has become, there’s a really terrible scene that sucks the life out of the third act and that emotionally disconnects us from what’s happening and nobody seems to want to talk about it. They want to focus on the genre melding, tone defying finale. But just before this scene is another, a scene shared by an aging Father and his newly wedded son.
THAT TERRIBLE CHEAT
While there are many similarities that can be discussed between Blood and the others, there is one big difference that makes Blood if nothing else unique.
There is something entrancing about watching Jack Torrence and Travis Bickle slide into madness uninterrupted by the directors’ God like hands. Kubrick and Scorcese knew to step out of the way of the downward spiral. True that while one of these ends in an ironic redemption and the other in physical death, including De Palma’s Tony Montana, P.T. Anderson’s Plainview dies in a more spiritual and transcendental way (though Kubrick’s vision is left open to interpretation with that final shot of the picture in the frame.)
Backing up a bit we see a glimmer of hope in Plainview’s world after the baptism, which seems to have more of an effect on him than anyone expected. It’s a thrilling experience that took me through the gamut of every emotion I could possibly feel in a movie theatre. And he’s renewed. He embraces his son once again, both figuratively and literally. But his son remains distant; stiff in Plainview’s arms.
The effect of the baptism begins to wear off. It’s an awkward wearing off. One that I don’t think P.T. handled as well as he could have. The scene in which he confronts the people who wished to purchase his oil wells is an awkwardly written scene. One that says very little about what’s happened and what’s to come. It seems to live unto itself.
Then a final shot of Plainview watching Eli Sunday board a train. His eyes are cutting straight through the heart of Sunday. What’s going on here? The scene before in which Plainview confronts the oil tycoons doesn’t help us. The only assumption you can make is that the transforming power of the baptism was like trying to cover a cut with a band aid when the real problem was the internal bleeding that no one could see. It’s not a definitive solution.
What Plainview doesn’t realize is that without a constant personal commitment baptism means nothing. The act of baptism can’t change a person outright, but getting slapped in the face can give you quite a buzz: this is how most faith healers work. And when he realizes this I think his power struggle with Eli Sunday truly becomes a deep seated hatred. But this is an assumption. There’s no other clues for Plainview’s return to the downward spiral other than the fact that P.T. Anderson has said that it’s watching a down ward spiral from the beginning.
Is this cheating? To put your character in a box that he can’t get out of. I was always taught that as a writer one should know how to end a movie before beginning it. So, this isn’t a cheat. It does become a cheat though when the writer and director, two in one in this case, forget about what’s happened a scene before and disregards his own story to get to the finale he wants.
The son, feeling no connection with his father finds solace in the love of a woman and marries her. It’s a strange transition through time since the son was never a driving force behind the story, but suddenly, for all intents and purposes he’s needed as a story device. All grown up he visits his father. But inexplicably their positions have changed. The father is now the one who is cold towards his son and the son for whatever reason has grown to love his father, and wants to be understood!
Anderson uses this transition through time to pull a fast one. Instead of allowing the characters’ relationships to find their natural conclusion. He boxes them up and forces them to feel towards each other how he, as an artist, needs them to feel about each other. Now that the son loves the father it gives us an opportunity to watch Plainview take that final step in pushing his son away.
Now, if Anderson had kept it in the present, and he had found another way for Plainview to push away the young version of his son, it would have been repetitive, as he had done so earlier. So perhaps this felt like the better choice. But why does the son have to love the father? Isn’t it enough that the son is leaving to start his own oil company? Isn’t it enough that he didn’t invite his Father to the wedding? Then why the need to reach out? It’s a dishonest moment. One that doesn’t play and left me suddenly disconnected from the emotional weight of the story. Hearing Plainview shout after his deaf son holds some irony, but it so earnestly wants to show that his decent into a life alone is complete it forgets to find the emotional truth.
Once disconnected I found it difficult to completely enjoy the final brilliant scene.
Anderson has done this before, interjected as a writer/director in the final moments. The frogs at the end of Magnolia spring to mind. But in the final moments of Magnolia he remains true to the characters’ progression. They react to a strange occurrence as their characters’ would react. In Blood Anderson goes a step too far and it ultimately hurts the film. If he had stepped back as Kubrick, De Palma and Scorcese did and let his characters take control of the scenes he would have found his way through. But I guess it wouldn’t make him P.T. Anderson if he didn’t. And while There Will Be Blood suffers to some extent because of it, we might be better off over all if he continues following his own set of rules even when he contradicts himself, because the next film could be that much better…or it could be that much worse.
Tags: "Drainage", "Here's Johnny", "I Drink Your Milkshake", "Say hello to my little friend", "You talkin' to me", Al Pacino, Baptism, Brian DePalma, Daniel Day-Lewis, Daniel Plainview, Jack Nicholson, Jack Torrance, Magnolia, Martin Scrcese, Oliver Stone, P.T. Anderson, Paul Schrader, Robert De Niro, Scarface, Stanley Kubrick, Taxi Driver, The Shining, There Will Be Blood, Tony Montana, Travis Bickle