Wednesday, 4 June 2008

Not Film 2008... but a film review anyway:"There Will Be Blood"

There Will Be Blood
The opening notes of the score set the tone for There Will Be Blood perfectly. As discordant, minor-key strings swell to an uncomfortable volume there can be little escaping the fact that this is a film about misery: the misery of the brutal and unforgiving life of turn-of-the-century oil prospectors; the misery of nascent communities that are promised much and delivered little; and the misery of a man who will not let himself be anything other than driven by black gold.

Daniel Day-Lewis gives a typically intense, method performance as Daniel Plainview, a struggling silver miner turned oil tycoon, in Paul Thomas Anderson's period piece. It's an over-used expression, but Day-Lewis really does inhabit the role, which is just as well since he's on-screen for nearly all of the film's 158 minutes. Robert Elswit's cinematography is equally accomplished in capturing both the grandeur of the untamed West and the claustrophobic intensity of those early mining exploits. And Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood's score is a revelation; taut, edgy, and harrowing in equal measure.

So the film features an award-winning central performance, is visually stunning, and engages the senses... so where does it all go wrong? Before you denounce this reviewer as a cinematic heathen for questioning a film that has garnered more five-star reviews than you can shake a Bafta at, hear me out; whilst Day-Lewis's performance is undeniably praiseworthy, this is a flawed film.

Let's deal with the minor issues first. The film is just too long for one whose themes are relentlessly, remorselessly grim: two and a half hours of badness, sadness and, let's be honest, more than a little madness was too much, even for the discerning art-house audience I sat amongst to watch this. Without doubt the editors could, and should, have wielded the knife a little more. Long doesn't necessarily mean epic, after all.

What of characterisation? Aside from Plainview, none of the characters are developed sufficiently to pique our interest, and I include Paul Dano's Eli Sunday in that. There are even gaping holes in Plainview's story: what, for example, happened in his early life to make him so loveless; why have there been no personal relationships in his life, other than that with his adopted son? If this is to emphasise how he is married to the zealous pursuit of oil riches, then it is rather a blunt instrument for doing so.

The biggest problem, though, is this; the lives of Plainview, his son, the evangelical preacher Sunday and, indeed, the surrounding town all begin to unravel when the pursuit of those oil resources starts to clash with the church. Just why Plainview so takes against Sunday is never adequately explained - it just happens, and leads to increasingly bizarre behaviour all around. Capitalism versus community is an oft-ploughed furrow but here, the plough struggles through stony ground.

There is much to admire in the craft of these film-makers but, beyond artistic appreciation, this is a difficult film to like, about a character with no redeeming features who could not even be described as an anti-hero. Plainview's last line in the film is "I'm finished," and sadly my immediate reaction to that was, "Thank goodness."

There Will Be Blood is out on DVD now so, if you don't buy into my review, scurry along to Amazon and make your own mind up.

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