I still need to read Stephanie Zacharek’s pan of TWBB, which I’ve heard is one of the best out there.  But for now, here’s a good critique (with links to others) by Gabe Klinger, which I found via Facebook but is apparently also available on a site called cine-file.info, which gives thoughtful coverage of film events in Chicago (all the more valuable once Jonathan Rosenbaum retires from regular film coverage next month). 

A skeleton film that takes for granted a lot about American history and the American character, P.T. Anderson’s story of the rise of an early 20th century oil man favors mystification and a modernistic structure, which allows for plenty of observation but asserts little by the way of a conclusion (except, perhaps, the accuracy of the prediction set forth in its title). THERE WILL BE BLOOD sifts through a hollowed field in which the main protagonist is supposed to register as the embodiment of destructive capitalist greed—he’s that, sure, though it’s secondary to his medieval capacity to threaten and ultimately shed the blood of others. Leading an otherwise forgettable set of background characters, Day-Lewis’s Daniel Plainview is as hard to place as Adam Sandler in PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE: both characters are outsiders in any historical context and may be better explained through their pathologies. All of Anderson’s films have the impulse to make summary statements about cinema and people. Here he knocks about several decades, outlines a novel (by Upton Sinclair) and gives his talented leading actor no boundaries whatsoever in achieving the most out-of-control, grotesque performance of the year. Too much credit is given to filmmakers for naked ambition, and certainly the raves from Manohla Dargis, Scott Foundas and so many others seem hyperbolic. What’s ambition without studied form? The influence of Altman and Peckinpah in THERE WILL BE BLOOD’s bombastic and inelegant painting of America is decisive and fascinating, if more corrosive than the oil beneath Daniel Plainview’s feet.

Plenty more to be said, of course. The above is admittedly pretty cryptic.

My friend Dan Sallitt writes persuasively on why he didn’t feel involved in the film: http://www.panix.com/~sallitt/blog/2008/01/i-am-not-convinced-that-p-t-anderson-is.html

Armond White calls it PT Anderson’s latest “pretend epic”: http://www.nypress.com/21/1/film/ArmondWhite.cfm
I don’t agree with everything White writes (for example that Plainview can only be seen as a thesis position) but I think he offers some good discussion points.Ed Gonzalez adds another dissenting voice, calling THERE WILL BE BLOOD “film-school-in-a-box”, which can be read either as good or bad, I guess: http://www.slantmagazine.com/film/film_review.asp?ID=3387

Lastly, although Jonathan Rosenbaum doesn’t seem to fully endorse the film, he lists it in the Reader’s Critics’ Choice section:
http://onfilm.chicagoreader.com/movies/critic.html
I agree that it should be seen, but the hyperbole (one critic I usually admire wrote that it’s the “kind of film that people will be analyzing and admiring for as long as people will continue to do such things”) has really peeved me. Scott Foundas, a friend, wrote that Anderson has made one of the great American movies.I might say the same thing about John Gianvito’s PROFIT MOTIVE AND THE WHISPERING WIND, which takes a real stake in American history (one might call it a “free adaptation” of Howard Zinn’s A PEOPLE’S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES), presents meaningful, clear images, and demystifies, in an original form, a lot of what THERE WILL BE BLOOD chooses to mystify about American capitalism. THERE WILL BE BLOOD is pure stlye, nothing else. It’s a muddled effort, I haven’t read a single argument to convince me otherwise.

Here’s what I wrote in reply:

Gabe, thanks for pointing out cine-file, whose usefulness as a local source for quality film criticism will be all the more needed as Jonathan steps down from the Reader. I do wish that the site had a search function as I could not find your review there.

Your assessment of the film makes many great points, up until the point that, looking at it from an intertextual standpoint, almost all of the first 2/3 of your comments could apply to, say, Citizen Kane (shallow supporting cast notwithstanding). My point being that much of what constitutes canonical American cinema (Kane, Godfather, Chinatown), is accompanied with an inflated assignation of having something profound to say about American politics or society. Not that they don’t, but it’s typically on a level of dramatic bombast and mythmaking (or mystifcation, as you put it) than intricate, fact-based observation. To what extent this is something to be criticized depends on what one wants to get out of cinema.

I don’t see much Altman (despite the dedication) or Peckinpah in this film at all. More Kubrick (in the cinematic) and Scorsese (in the dramatic) — and John Huston (whatever it means to be influenced by Huston, perhaps a persnickety antihumanist worldview). Whatever the case, none of these folks were famed for non-aggrandizing historical insights (despite some people’s claims to the contrary, at least for Altman and Scorsese) – but then again how many mainstream American directors can you think of that were?

Such is the pathology of American cinema to make and destroy myths that the ending of TWBB seems to serve as a built in parody of the bigger than life cinema that preceded it, if only to build up an even bigger and more garish display of traditional American types.

I’m glad you brought up John’s film, which indeed makes a great companion piece to Anderson and whose formal modesty and concentration more than compensate for the other’s excesses.

Thoughts from anyone out there?  I’m pondering just what are the nature of the joys to be found in TWBB.  How much of what Gabe & Co.’s complaints can apply to other commonly touted great films?  Are they missing the boat?  Either way, I think that line, “What’s ambition without studied form?” is key.