Monday, July 28, 2008

I Guess I'll Just Have to Order Another Milkshake

I'll admit it. Some movies scare me. No, I'm not talking about the kind of scare horror movies are supposed to give you. (Well, the "Saw" movies scare me on a certain level, but that's a rant for another day.) What I'm talking about is the kind of scare that comes from having your ego threatened; the kind of scare that I feel when I walk out of a movie thinking, "Damn, I'm happy I don't have to review that one." The best recent example of this sort of film is "There Will Be Blood." It is rare to see a film that is so wildly ambitious, but also widely praised by critics and embraced by pop culture as a whole. Going in, such a film can be rather intimidating for a young film snob. One wonders, "Will I get it?" or, "Will I see what others see in it? And if so, will I be able to build a righteous hatred for it that will allow me to rant for weeks on end about how overrated it is?"

After seeing the Paul Thomas Anderson's "There Will Be Blood" in theaters, I walked away impressed, but baffled. In other words, the answer to all of my aforementioned questions was pretty much, "No." I felt like the film's main character had just sauntered up and delivered on his threats; Daniel Plainview had drunk my milkshake -- drunk it right up -- and I didn't know what to make of the situation. This perturbation has persisted ever since and only last night did I finally get the opportunity to sit down and give the film another go.

Initially, this had an effect that may only surprise me: I found myself understanding the film both more and less. My first reaction was to consider ejecting the disc and throwing it across the room. (Blu-ray discs fly quite well. I suggest trying it with a copy of "Fool's Gold.") After that impulse was repressed, however, I sat down and really thought about why I had ever liked the film at all, and some things finally came together in my head. One of the film's most striking qualities, in my mind, is its similarity to Stanley Kubrick's work. I consider him to be one of the greatest artists of the last century, so seeing flashes of his work in other films always excites me. From the beautifully deliberate pans and zooms of the camera, to the unflinchingly bleak characterization of Plainview, "There Will Be Blood" shows that Paul Thomas Anderson has a cinematic bravado that is only comparable to Kubrick's.

What has always defined Kubrick in my eyes is the fact that his films are, on one level, very simple but astoundingly complex on just about every other. "The Shining" is about a guy who kills his family. "Eyes Wide Shut" is about a guy who is considering cheating on his wife. "2001" is about a ship that travels throughout the solar system to find a giant monolith that -- okay, that one is a bad example. Looking back on "There Will Be Blood," I can see a similar dichotomy revealed when Plainview blithely comments on his inner sense of competition. I was surprised to realize that, on one level, the film is that simple: He is just a selfish, jealous son of a bitch, inside and out.

Obviously, that is not all there is to him, but knowing that there is such a simple framework for the entire film makes it easier for me to accept just how inscrutable the rest of it can be. Daniel's relationships with religion, his son, and even the oil he drills are complex and often seemingly contradictory. Much of the film seems to revel in a murky sort of complexity that only dares to you try and illuminate it. This is what makes films like "There Will Be Blood" so important: they challenge us in new ways. Now I feel a certain sort of comfort in my fear, like that uneasy laughter that washes over an audience after a particularly big scare in a horror movie. This is because I now realize that all great films, regardless of their purported genre, are horror films. They force us to venture into unexplored depths of our own minds. Now that's something of which we can all be afraid.

No comments: