I admire Daniel Day Lewis as much as any dedicated film fan--the idea of seeing a film with him even scares me a little in the good way. But I was never big on P.T. Anderson-- even though I liked Magnolia and Boogie Nights some, I never felt the director made important narrative decisions that felt earned. His work seemed to crave hipness--to steal it--instead of achieving it with truly innovative and genuine narrative work.
Oddly, I thought this concern would dissolve upon seeing the massively hyped "There Will Be Blood." I thought the film would be, as it has been publicized, an epic interpretation of Upton Sinclair--replete with fantastic acting; an admirable score in the old sense; and big ideas about oil, humanity, industrialism, America, Manifest Destiny, evil. But most important, a script worth drooling over. I believed in DDL that much.
But I was wrong, and despite all the universal praise for the film--yes, the main performance is admirable--I have to wonder why so very few people have come out to say this movie is even smaller--and malignantly so--in some ways than Anderson's "small" indies. There is so much obsession over detail, so much amazing cinematography and early buildup. But it doesn't come together when the film jumps down into a hole and narrows in on a petty if entertaining climax that could have been performed on a cheap stage--never mind the expanded issues this climax could have symbolized (that the director probably thinks it does symbolize) with better developmental screenwriting.
I'll try not to spoil the journey for you should you care to take it on the half hour as many theaters have scheduled it. But not only does Anderson choose to focus on what should just be one small conflict in a potentially epic story--and then choose to skip through time and tell us about it as opposed to showing a lot of foundational material needed to care this much about said conflict as the movie's most obvious struggle. The rapscallion--oh, P.T., you're sly--mischievously doesn't follow through on the promise of the film about big ideas, and he sadly doesn't completely flesh out his "oil man." His history or his relationships--say, with his son. Such that when they fall on hard times, it's nearly impossible to care. That is, if you can detach yourself from DDL's performance--and it's hard, but try.
Sure, it's fun to see bowling pins used in new American ways (I'm not a spoiler). But the whole show shouldn't have been so comedic or surprisingly focused on such a lame tangent when it seemed like so much could have happened. There was a lot of laughter in the theater--and it wasn't the dark, twisted laughter for which the filmmaker may hope. But don't worry if you liked it: I'm sure the Academy's already sealed this film's destiny.
After all, it's an acting triumph for DDL. But is it really? Didn't we know he could do this stuff? Did we need to see it again? Some of it was very enjoyable but it seemed like wasted effort. Pair the genius actor up with someone who thinks bigger--and better. To make a movie this long that gives us this little is really a feat--but not one we should endorse.
Even more offensive to Shallot central is the musical side of the equation. The filmmakers hired a potentially strong composer--Radiohead's Johnny Greenwood--to write what sounded like an intriguing score made of pitch-bending dissonances and anxiety provoking rhythms.
But the movie tries too hard, shallowly, in this department too. Instead of letting Greenwood follow through on what could have been a start-to-finish symphonic score--something you'd want to listen to on its own, say--Anderson shares with us the novel third movement of Brahms's Violin Concerto to interrupt it and accompany one of the film's most triumphant and tragic plot points. Then, when matters turn mysterious, the music supervisor throws in a cello ensemble version of Arvo Pärt's Fratres. Too easy and disrespectful. To the film, the older music, and new film composer.
I love both of these pieces--and there's definitely something in the barren setting of the film and the character's wayward morality apropos of Pärt if not this one movement of Brahms. But both of these musical insertions undermine Greenwood's work. The film feels musically disjunct because of them, especially when the credits role to the victorious Brahms conclusion.The real Independent thing to do here--you're P.T. Anderson, right?--would have been to let Greenwood score the film in its entirety, not use pre-recorded hits known to conjure narrative power in the middle of the story.
This type of music-supervisory decision isn't always the supervisor's fault. And I'm usually a fan of using great music in a movie--but not so cheaply. It could just be--and seemingly is--the director's too-self-conscious "I'm not as good as I sell myself to be so I better throw in everything but the kitchen sink" mentality. It's hard to find this problem under the thick veil of all that tarry oil and DDL glory acting. But it's there. Believe me.
In fact, such a musical strategy--to say nothing of flaunting DDL and all the detail and epic cinematographic talent the movie employs--renders this truth shockingly obvious when you realize how petty the film's main narrative turns out to be.
And I'm not alone. So many people--including friends I disagree with very often--left my showing at the Arclight disappointed. This movie could have been so much more than it was. But by producers giving free reign to an "indie" filmmaker who shouldn't have been given so much freedom to begin with--then again: hell, I'd give money to anything involving DDL, too--that's what you get.
Frankly, I prefer it when Steve Martin gets small.