When any art tilts toward decadence, an anxious aesthetic nostalgia brings forth young would-be artists who produce florid, half-baked imitations of earlier, better works and critics who exhaust the thesaurus in hailing their derivative creations as nothing short of exalted perfection.
This, in a nutshell, is the story of Paul Thomas Anderson. It's not just the story of one obviously talented but imitative, unsure and very uneven writer-director who manages to produce five diverse features by the time he's 37, films that would have had him regarded as an interestingly ambitious wannabe 30 years ago yet today have him headed "into the pantheon," according to The New York Times. It's also, necessarily, a story of old-line cinephile culture sucking its own fumes, of critics old and young not only wishing They Still Made'em Like They Used To, but convincing themselves that They Still Do—And Even Better, By Golly!
When I wrote about Boogie Nights, Anderson's 1997 breakthrough, I started out opining that the extravagantly over-the-top critical reaction to the film struck me as far more interesting than the film itself, a well-acted but sitcom-like and satirically limp romp through the SoCal porn industry. "When," I wondered, "did so many reputable critics write so many preposterous things all at once?"
If Boogie Nights set some kind of record in that regard, and Anderson's subsequent woozy-mystical and more-imitative-than-ever Magnolia upped the ante even further, his new There Will Be Blood seems headed for the Mount Rushmore of Ecstatic Overreaction. Numerous critics' polls and awards have named it the best film of 2007, and if the Oscars are held this year, it will surely be the film to beat for Best Picture. So the following dissent is, once again, very much a minority opinion.
Though I've regarded Anderson as something of a fraudulent striver from the first, I go into every new film hoping to be won over. And I must stress that in the first half of There Will Be Blood, I was—completely. If there were Oscars for portions of movies, I'll grant you that the initial hour of Anderson's opus would deserve that Best Picture trophy.
The first 10 minutes alone, which show tyro oil tycoon Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) getting his start in primitive wells and dusty Western landscapes, comprise a wordless visual poem worthy of Flaherty or Murnau. Subsequently, Anderson lays down the foundations of a fascinating tale as he traces Plainview's rise in the early oil industry, his doting relationship with his young son H.W. (as a child, Dillon Freasier; as an adult, Russell Harvard), and his scouting new drill sites, including one in California where there's a growing fundamentalist congregation led by a demanding young preacher named Eli Sunday (Paul Dano, who's terrific).
Happily, this part of the movie offers compelling evidence that Anderson is finally melding all those influences that previously were so blatantly displayed—Altman, Scorsese, Kubrick, et al.—into a coherent style of his own. His superb work with cinematographer Robert Elswit (also responsible for the brilliant images of Michael Clayton), production designer Jack Fisk and an exemplary cast show a filmmaker in impressive control of his medium. (In fact, the director's only lapse back into imitativeness lies in allowing Day-Lewis' shameless vocal impersonation of John Huston.) And in storytelling skills, Anderson is just as convincing—to a point.
I'll tell you exactly where he loses it. There's a scene where Sunday comes to Plainview to demand money, and the oilman goes berserk, knocking the preacher to the ground and smearing his face in the mud. Now, the violent emotionalism of Plainview's behavior here struck me as anomalous, but it could be put down to the shock he recently suffered when an explosion left his son deaf. The real problem is that this is where the film begins to sacrifice sense to sensation, commencing a spiral from well-calibrated drama into an ever more portentous and overwrought Grand Guignol. It's as if Paths of Glory suddenly morphed into The Shining.
Just after that scene there's one where Sunday screams repeatedly at his frail father that the old man is "stupid"—another anomalous outburst that shows the breakdown we're witnessing is not Plainview's—it's the film's. The downward spiral continues up to, and climaxes with, the movie's final scene, which is atrocious not because it is so violent but because it uses violence to cover an intellectual vacancy as well as numerous inconsistencies and absurdities displayed by the characters.
There are two salient hallmarks of screenwriting that's overly influenced by the banalities of TV writing, which I think has been Anderson's big problem all along. First, the drama is devoid of ideas that are not entirely trite or predigested. In a screenplay loosely based on Upton Sinclair's 1927 novel Oil!, in which there are communists, socialists, strikes and other hard-edged political realities, all Anderson can manage to suggest are vague slogans along the lines of "Capitalism Is Bad," "Religion Is Stupid" and, of course, "It's All About Oil" (no less simple-minded here than it was in Fahrenheit 9/11).
Second, just as political and historical issues are reduced to clichés, so are human personalities flattened into cartoons. That's really the biggest flaw of Blood. From the drama's early parts, when Plainview seems like an interestingly complex guy, he gradually congeals into a plastic gargoyle—a movement that's taken as significant simply because we live in an era where glib cynicism is constantly mistaken for profundity.
Ultimately, I think Anderson has nothing to say other than that he wants to make movies like the great ones of yore. And critics, seeing no new Altmans or Kubricks on the horizon, are all too ready to mistake his pretensions for the real thing.
There Will Be Blood opens Friday in select theaters.