Monday, 10 March 2008

THERE WILL BE BLOOD (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007)

Still from the Prologue

Extreme long shot/ long take of Plainview and son's reunion

Final shot

There Will Be Blood opened in theatres here last week. It is also available on DVD, and over the weekend I watched the film in the cinema and then again at home in order to try to sort out my reaction to it.

Watching the film initially, I was impressed but also very unsatisfied. I felt there were two major weaknesses. One was structurally in terms of how the story seemed to meander, especially with the introduction of Plainview's brother. The other was a certain emptiness or at least simplicity in regards to the thematic material. Upon further discussion and reflection of the film, I think I was wrong on both counts, and I've gone from thinking the film was very flawed if fascinating to seeing it as a near masterpiece, all in about a 24 hour period. Re-watching the film, the structure is actually very coherent and even tight, bookended with a prologue and epilogue, and the character of the brother is crucial to the overall mediation on blood relations. The simplicity of the film went away on second viewing. My initial problem was with the power of the conclusion that seemed to undercut Plainview's character and make him simply a two-dimensional villain. In fact, this epilogue should be seen in relation to the rest of the movie, not as a conclusion in the traditional sense.

Anderson has typically been seen as a director who simply mimics other filmmakers, particularly directors of the New Hollywood. Thus Boogie Nights is seen as a rip-off of Scorsese and Magnolia is seen as Altmanesque. There are plenty of references and influences on display here, even though Altman and especially Scorsese are less central than Kubrick, Malick and Coppola. In particular, the 13 minute near dialogue free opening recalls 2001, especially the use of music and Lewis's almost ape-like performance (see still above). And the epilogue recalls The Shining in both the composition of the final shot (see still above) and in Daniel Day-Lewis's performance style recalling the Brechtian approach of Jack Nicholson in the earlier film (for a discussion of the influence of Brecht on Nicholson see Dennis Bingham's book Acting Male). And I think Lewis's performance here should be viewed in this context of Brecht, deliberately breaking with realism. The conclusion does not cancel out the character Lewis has created over the previous two hours of the film but rather comments on that character and what he represents.

But despite these many influences, There Will Be Blood is a unique experience that is drawing on the epic themes of Coppola's Godfather films and the visual beauty of Malick (although the landscape here feels more like Monte Hellman's The Shooting in its barren look) without simply mimicking them. One is reminded instead of Scorsese in his prime, drawing on his vast reservoir of film knowledge but creating something distinctive. Anderson's influences are more recent, drawing on the "Golden Age" he grew up with. One of the things worth admiring about There Will Be Blood is its long take style, which is far removed from the "intensified continuity" of contemporary Hollywood (David Bordwell discusses this at length in a recent blog entry The middle still from above is an extreme long shot from one of the longer takes in the movie, removing sentimentality from the reunion of Plainview and his son. A shot breakdown of the film is available here:

I first thought that No Country for Old Men was clearly the better film. Now, I'm not so sure. In many ways evaluating one film over the other is beside the point. Both are equally impressive achievements with different aesthetic approaches. They are the two best American films of the year that I saw, and two of the better of recent years.

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