It is difficult to write a review on Paul Thomas Anderson’s bravely mounted epic, There Will Be Blood, because it requires one’s own impression and that impression is supposed to be true and it’s supposed to take into account a lot of things like film history, creative accomplishment, and all of the emotionally removed things a critic is supposed to write about. If the film was a failure to me, it should never be said that it isn’t a marvelous display of cinematic gifts, artistic courage, and skill.
No film has received as much early hype on the web as the oil epic, which stars Daniel Day-Lewis in a role that will probably win him the Oscar. This wouldn’t be the first time I was lagging behind or on a different planet entirely from other critics. But the reaction to this movie, which amounts to unprecedented critical acclaim, has made me feel a bit like the one person standing at the parade who sees a naked emperor.
For all of the beauty, epic sweep, and heavy-handed message of the movie, watching it, for me, was like being assaulted. All I wanted to do was walk out of the theater, but I was packed in, down front, and unable to move. Far from being transformed by the film, I felt as though I couldn’t breathe. Perhaps, for some, this equals a profound experience, but for me, a tired old lady, I felt as though I would have been better off never having seen it at all.
I will admit that I have suffered enough in my own life so that I don’t feel required to indulge an artist’s vision. I already am quite aware how the West was won. I know that oil men and Rockefellers are bad men, or considered bad by many. I know that there has been blood spilled for the desire for oil. And I know that there are monsters out there disguised as businessmen. I know all of these things, and three hours hammering the point home is a bit much. Perhaps if I were younger, fresher, and in need of being moved by something unsentimental, I might have appreciated it more.
I am therefore willing to admit that it isn’t him; it isn’t Paul Thomas Anderson’s great leap forward as an artist, it’s me. The film is, by all accounts, a masterpiece. It has been compared to Kubrick and Welles. It was voted Best Picture by the LA Film Critics and is fast on its way to becoming a Best Picture nominee by the Academy. It isn’t the film; it’s me. And you know what? It really doesn’t matter what I think. I realize you readers are here expecting me to actually review this film but I am at a bit of a loss. How can I talk about the emperor’s clothes when, to me, he isn’t wearing any.
Nonetheless, I feel that it is my duty to express not my own feelings but those of the many respectable critics who have lifted the film up to supreme heights. So here goes. Just pretend I know what I’m talking about and that I didn’t want to leave the film at the two-hour mark: It’s brilliant. It is the best film of 2007 and proves, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Paul Thomas Anderson has arrived. Boogie Nights, Magnolia, and Punch Drunk Love were for wussies (I happen to love those films).
This is a film about a ruthless oil man, a corrupt religious man, and flickers of good people here and there, none of whom do particularly well in this brave new world. Daniel Day-Lewis stars as Daniel Plainview, sort of a cross between Bill the Butcher from Gangs of New York and John Huston as Noah Cross in Chinatown. Daniel Plainview doesn’t have time for women folk, though he does show some compassion for his son (who goes deaf when the oil well erupts) and a little girl in the town. Nothing ever becomes of this kindness as, for reasons unexplained really, he only grows more and more cold and evil as the movie presses on.
There is only one direction the film travels in and that is: an elevator to hell. This may be the America many see. This may be Man himself. This may be, in fact, manifest destiny; there is nothing subtle about it.
You see, this is a movie I don’t feel qualified to judge or rate. I will just let it be. If you see well made clothes on the emperor, who am I to tell you that there is no there there.