P.T. Anderson won me over with Boogie Nights and Magnolia, two amazing portraits of time and place and human life set in my native California. I left There Will Be Blood, an epic also based in California, but a century ago, unsure what to feel. Critics call this film a masterpiece, but I’ve spent a good hour thinking about it now and I still can’t figure out what story he’s trying to tell. Clearly the plot itself, about an up-and-coming oil tycoon on the great American frontier, is secondary to the characters, to the examination of a time and an industry and a singular life, but to what end? What are we supposed to feel? How are we supposed to react to the duel of wills of two very different but equally despicable men? Were all the oil drilling accidents that punctuated the film and cut short so many lives supposed to ground us? Was Plainview’s grotesque devolution after the injury of his adopted son supposed to convey to us something profound? Or was it all just a study in evil and self-destruction, a modern-day _Citizen Kane_?
And what was the deal with the third act? Seriously, 20 years later?
As a character portrait, I admit, the film is good. As a period piece, amazing — I was totally taken by the cinematography, the harsh brightness, the gritty scrubland, the ceaselessly pooling and oozing oil, the towering well lit up in flame. I felt the time and the place. But to what end? I left the film more confused than anything. I looked back and said, well, that happened. I don’t know what makes this film a masterpiece. I admit, maybe it was my mood, my seat in the theater, or the sound problems. Or maybe it just doesn’t speak to me. But if the consensus of the rest of the group I went with is any indication, it probably doesn’t speak to a lot of people.