Every November as award season looms, movie studios begin mailing DVD screeners to critics across the country. They want to get their films on year-end “best-of” lists, and they want to make sure reviewers who vote on major awards have the opportunity to see them, even if they haven’t yet opened in their markets. I vote on the Critics’ Choice Awards, so it’s like Christmas coming early. This past fall, however, I noticed something curious: Nobody appeared eager for me to see the new movie from Paul Thomas Anderson.
Which I thought was odd, since There Will Be Blood was fast becoming the most buzzed-about picture of the season. Meanwhile, the marketing machines for contenders like Sweeney Todd and The Great Debaters were frantically arranging advance screenings, in addition to sending out complimentary DVDs, soundtrack compilations and lush coffee-table tomes. It was almost as though, when Anderson’s film opened in limited release over the holidays, the primary goal of its promoters was limiting the number of critics who could get a look at it. Now that it’s finally hit town, I think I see why that might have been.
Don’t get me wrong — this is a sprawling, oddball experiment, crafted with imagination, sumptuously shot and well worth the price of a ticket. At the same time, it is hardly the milestone American epic a handful of critics in Los Angeles and New York declared it to be a month ago. For one thing, it isn’t really about much of anything.
Oh sure, the central character, Daniel Plainview, is a strong-willed wild-cat oil driller who’ll say or do whatever it takes to get what he wants. The problem is that all he wants is to get rich. He’s a con man and a bully, but more than anything, he’s a bore. Wealth means more to him than love, sex, friends or family. Whiskey ranks a close second, but, unfortunately, drinking only tends to make him duller.
You know a character’s dull when a great actor like Daniel Day-Lewis can’t make much more than a one-dimensional monster out of him; his channeling of John Huston is a periodically diverting — if meaningless — touch. Plainview’s nemesis is another con man, a pudding-faced faith healer played by Paul Dano. Eli Sunday wants to build a spiritual empire, just as Plainview has his eye on a commercial one, and he’s pleased as punch to erect it by lying to his followers and shaking down the oil man. In the beginning, the prospector admits to a grudging respect for the preacher’s scam. “That’s good. That’s a good one,” he concedes when forced to donate $10,000 to Sunday’s church before he can secure the rights to drill on his family’s land. By the time the closing credits come up, their rivalry has grown lethal.
Anderson has adapted his fifth film from Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel Oil! — or rather, its first 100 or so pages — and reinterpreted it as the story of Daniel Plainview rather than that of his adopted and abandoned son. In so doing, the filmmaker has not only changed the focus of Sinclair’s story but has also jettisoned substantial chunks of it, so it’s no surprise that the movie feels in many respects incomplete.
A guy gets rich and goes crazy. Because his wealth derives from oil, some critics have suggested the film has something important to say about present-day America. They’re reading between lines that aren’t even there. Because the guy goes crazy in a vast mansion, some critics have compared the film to Citizen Kane. They haven’t watched Citizen Kane lately.
The portrait the film offers of early 20th-century California and its transformation by the oil industry is as intriguing as its portrait of Plainview, if not more so. (The picture was shot in the same stark stretch of Texas that furnished the setting for No Country for Old Men, not to mention the 1956 oil drama Giant.) But, having heard all you’ve heard about There Will Be Blood, you aren’t likely to come looking for a history lesson. It’s a modern masterpiece you’ll be expecting — and, since that’s the case, I fear there will be disappointment.