about that blood

I finally saw There Will Be Blood last night, and must admit to some disappointment. As someone who think that Magnolia is one of the best films of the past twenty years — maybe the best — and who even liked Punch-Drunk Love, I had pretty high hopes for this one, and it didn’t live up to them.

To be sure, P. T. Anderson’s cinematic imagination is at work here in some powerful ways: the teasing, the unsolved puzzles, the characters who even in their acts of self-revelation leave us more confused than we were to start with. And he has some new tricks up his sleeve that enrich the narrative: for instance, having characters age at different rates, or in one case not at all; having some characters (most notably the protagonist, Daniel Plainview) speak in period style, while others (most notably his enemy from Standard Oil) use a completely contemporary idiom.

But I think Anderson’s decision to tell a story from the past — to leave the contemporary (or nearly contemporary) world in which he has worked so far — cuts him adrift from his own filmmaking style. All through the movie I kept thinking about the movies that this one is visually indebted to: Giant above all, but in some scenes Terence Malick’s extraordinary Days of Heaven, and there’s even a scene near the end — our first look at Plainview’s bowling alley — that echoes the shots of the hotel hallway and elevator in The Shining. (And doesn’t blood come pouring out of that elevator at one point? Hmmmm.)

And then, not visually but narratively, there’s the enormous debt to Citizen Kane, another movie whose climax is a scene in which an utterly isolated old man — a man who rose from rural poverty to great wealth, and is living in a house far too big for him — staggers around in a destructive rage. That echo works, I think, partly because of the ways in which Plainview’s story differs from Charles Foster Kane’s; and it gives the concluding scene more force than it would otherwise have, especially since Anderson seems determined in that scene to kick the props out from under his whole movie. But the rest of the echoes seem to me merely derivative.

And yes, Daniel Day-Lewis is great. He’s absolutely riveting. But given his acting chops, and given the part Anderson wrote for him, he could scarcely have been anything but. Yes, go ahead and give him the Oscar, he deserves it — in exactly the same way that Meryl Streep deserved an Oscar for Sophie’s Choice, another movie that highlights the magnificence of its lead actor at the expense of the story and, I think, at the expense of our interest in the character the actor is playing.

No one could be more of an actor’s director than Anderson. If I were an actor, I’d offer to work for him for free, because I’d know he would cut me loose. Most of the actors in an Anderson film get at least one chance to pull out all their stops, and that’s often wonderful to watch. But here’s the interesting thing: when all the other actors are playing their scenes for every last drop they can squeeze out of them, the actor who chooses restraint can often be the most affecting, the most powerful. So when I think of Magnolia my mind doesn’t go first to the meltdowns of the Tom Cruise and Julianne Moore characters, even though I think those are great scenes. No, the first thing I think of is the way Philip Seymour Hoffman just listens to the dying Jason Robards, or John C. Reilly blurting out to his date, “I lost my gun.” The most restrained actors in that film are the most memorable ones. And while Daniel Day-Lewis is many things in There Will be Blood, many powerful things, “restrained” isn’t one of them.