While “No Country For Old Men,” a movie I have deep reservations about, seems poised to sweep the Oscars, I think another problematic contender is gaining momentum. And the way it has been packaged and received by audiences tells you a lot about the “quality” film business at this moment.
“There Will Be Blood,” loosely adapted from a novel by Sinclair Lewis (that I’m guessing nobody has read in at least fifty years), is the type of sprawling but modestly budgeted period piece that the high-end movie-going audience in this country seems to relish. It deals with something many of us know a little about but practically all of us have an opinion, even if it’s an opinion based on mythology. And that is the rise of a megalomaniacal oil tycoon. It features a towering performance by one of our most widely acknowledged eccentrics, Daniel Day Lewis. And it’s crafted with exquisite attention to detail, at least for most of its running time.
Its virtues go beyond just craft. At its heart is a seamless interplay between actor Lewis and writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson. The character at the movie’s core and the environment around him has an obsessive focus that all totaled amount to a vision of another planet. It’s just that this planet happens to be one we lived in, nearly a century ago.
When the camera is on him (Lewis) the movie is mesmerizing. His involvement with the character goes beyond anything in the script and makes Jason Robards’s canny remark, “if it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage,” almost aside from the point. We can’t shake this guy from our minds, even if we wanted to.
Then there’s the director, who’s been called a “master” with only a handful of films to his credit. Not yet 40, Anderson is a favorite among young Hollywood. He won a major following after “Boogie Nights,” the last word on the porno business which grew like weeds in Hollywood’s back yard during the early 70s.
Located mainly in the sprawling San Fernando Valley, many commentators took a perverse pleasure in porno’s ups and downs, because in a way they mirrored the “legitimate” industry to which it aspired. Anderson got that, long before it became commonplace. He caught its hard side, soft side, and almost comic pretensions. The movie was amazing for its energy, performances and twisty story lines. It capped the career of Burt Reynolds and arguably gave birth to that of Mark Wahlberg, Heather Graham, John C. Reilly, Don Cheadle, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Not bad.
Anderson has wonderful instincts for actors. He knows what to do with them, and better, how to create character through striking visuals. Most of his films (see “Hard Eight,” “Magnolia,” and “Punch Drunk Love”) resolve in ways that leave us irritated because he seems not to care about resolving stories in ways that leave us satisfied. I don’t think that’s any excuse for downright incoherence (which I think he is guilty of, over and over), but the reality is, he’s managed to get a pass from a devoted following that has a taste for his taste. Both here and abroad.
“Blood” is no exception to the Anderson canon. As narrative it shows signs of hopping the tracks about halfway in, when after a sterling hour or so, Lewis’s oil man becomes harder and harder to read. He seems to lose focus on a child he adopted in the early going. He’d used the child as a prop to move his career along, but their decline as a family is irregularly detailed. Small fissures in the narrative become chasms as we get to the last chapter, thirty years on, to the point where I overheard several people wondering whether the film was missing a reel. But no, I think Anderson made choices that put coherence on the back burner. I think he figured he’d done enough to earn the melodramatic punches in the last reel, and that smoother transitions would have flirted with cliché. I disagree.
The deepest revelations of character can be married to the best designed story lines. John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, and Francis Ford Coppola have shown us how it’s done. Anderson is lucky that the art house crowd has allowed him considerable latitude to indulge himself. He may even get rewarded for it on Oscar night. But for me, this time, the blood ran cold.
Foreign Film Alert: I don’t know how it happened that the Cannes winner, “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,” failed to get an Oscar nomination. To summarize the plot, which follows one young woman’s attempt to help another get an abortion, is to sell the film way short of its suspense and irony. Don’t worry: the unpleasant aspects are deftly handled, so the squirm factor is minimized. The impact comes from indelible characters and a window into a society (Romania under the grip of its last dictator) with issues we can understand even if we have no knowledge about the country. Romania seems to have come out of the lost movie closet, the way Spain did after Franco went.
You may not see “4 Weeks” in theaters but get the DVD, sit back and let it work its spell.