Saturday, January 26, 2008

Review :: There Will Be Blood

There are some movies that make criticism seem inadequate.

I think of art and criticism as two complementary modes of thought, one the implicit and the suggestive and the other the explicit and argumentative. Art is the warm and breathing form of the human; it's our desires and our emotions given shape. Criticism is the cold and precise surgeon's scalpel, cutting away the tissue of imagination to see how it all fits together. Criticism is neither violence nor murder, however; rather, criticism is like an anatomy of the human mind. Together, art and criticism form a hermeneutical synthesis: art meets criticism on the fields of thought and in between the two we grapple with our own minds and struggle to find meaning. The difficulty, however, is that it can be awkward to synthesize the two, since art and criticism speak entirely different languages. When criticism attempts to apprehend art, especially (as is the case in this article) the art of the moving picture, it must translate it, and in this translation something can easily be lost. For all its nuances, all its intricacies and precision, language language is cold and dead; it can often fail to contain, or even suggest, the majesty or elegance that can be evoked from even some of the most simple camera moves.

All of this is to say that I don't know what to say about Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood. It is the kind of movie that can make criticism seem inadequate, that can make us feel like any attempt to dissect it with words were merely an awkward fumbling towards uncertainty. Several days have passed since I saw There Will Be Blood and I am still not certain what, if anything, I should say about it that would do the film justice. It is the kind of movie that other movies wish they could be. It is the end of cinema, cinema's apotheosis.

The fear that I was over-reacting, that I had somehow been caught up in a fever of generosity, is one of the factors that kept me from writing about There Will Be Blood the moment I got home. I wanted and needed time to reflect on what the film had made me feel. In the theatre, with the sounds and images of Paul Thomas Anderson's genius surrounding me, I felt I was witnessing something that hadn't been seen since Kubrick - the limits of narrative cinema. Now, upon reflection, I think I still feel the same way.

There Will Be Blood is a story of madness. Daniel Day-Lewis plays Daniel Plainview, a self-made oil tycoon; Paul Dano plays Eli Sunday, the self-appointed cult mouthpiece for the Church of the Third Revelation. When the discovery of oil brings Plainview to Sunday's church, the two begin a rivalry that will span decades and that could ultimately destroy them both.

That's about as much as I want to say about the film's plot. It's not a complicated movie. Like King Lear or several of the films of either Stanley Kubrick (Lolita or Eyes Wide Shut) or Werner Herzog (Aguirre or Fitzcarraldo), There Will Be Blood's power and grandeur are borne from simplicity, from a mythic and terrifying depiction of human desire and ambition turned violent and self-destructive. The terror that we feel while watching Day-Lewis' Plainview isn't the terror of the unknown or the alien but the terror of recognition, of seeing our own mundane and all-too-human capacity for madness.

This is without doubt Paul Thomas Anderson's finest film to date. I loved Boogie Nights, Magnolia and Punch-Drunk Love, but those films only hinted at the genius that Anderson displays in There Will Be Blood. With this film, Anderson evolves from artist to visionary. The change in Anderson's work here is like the transformation in Ingmar Bergman between Smiles of a Summer Night and The Seventh Seal, or in David Cronenberg between Scanners and Videodrome. Anderson has stepped up from being good and has become great. It's breathtaking to think that Anderson is still young.

I could go on. I could rave like a lunatic. I could throw more words at There Will Be Blood and hope that some of them are appropriate or adequate. I won't, however. The film is still too vital in my mind, still too alive to properly dissect. I've mostly talked my way around the movie, talked more about my experience of the movie then about the movie itself. The most I can say is this: I've seen the best of film. I've seen Kubrick and Kurosawa, Lynch and Herzog. Now I've seen Anderson. And as far as I'm concerned, he ranks with the greats. He's standing on the shoulders of giants and becoming a giant himself.


Life of Turner said...

I have found a similar experience in attempting to relate this film to others - there are no words to describe it. Like Plainview, it is best to speak little and not sully the majesty of one's surroundings with something so trifling as words. This truly is a film beyond linguistic measure. Thank you, Brother Daniel.

dcornelius said...

I had the same problem with No Country and Rescue Dawn. It's a good problem to have. 2007 was a great year for film.

Cut La Rock said...

We've had a back and forth on this movie a little bit already, but I wanted to chime in on your official review.

There are movies for movies sake, and there are movies for arts sake, and then there are movies that are just plain art, and this is one of those movies. From top to bottom it was a movie you just had to look at in awe, from the story telling to the beauty in the way it was shot to the utter creepiness in the way the music set up scenes. This was a classic example of a movie made by someone whose motives were pure, wanting to tell a story in a way that required technical perfection but also was true to the art of story-telling.

I had some problems with this movie, in particular the last 10 minutes of the film, but everything I had just watched over the previous 2 hours and 40 minutes was so magnificent that I couldn't help but question my own doubts and wonder if I wasn't capable of understanding what it was that was being put in front of me and the motivation behind it. Everything before that questionable 10 minutes was so completely mind-blowing that I can completely forgive any plot-twists than may have ended up contradicting my own expectations that I had built up as I watched the movie.

Without a doubt its one of my favorite movies of the past year.

dcornelius said...

Thanks, Cut. I can see what you mean about the ending but I do disagree with you. It's the perfect summation, and really the only possible outcome, of the conflict between the two.

But I do agree with you on this: it was the best movie of 2007. As I've been thinking it over, No Country for Old Men, Rescue Dawn and this have been the contenders for best picture but simply for the audacity of it, for its purity of story-telling, and for Day-Lewis' unmatchable performance, I think I've settled on There Will Be Blood.