"I have a competition in me. I want no one
else to succeed. I hate most people..."
Daniel Plainview, Oil magnet and member
of the 'Profoundly Disturbed Bastards Club'
There can be little doubt that Daniel Day-Lewis is regarded as the UK's very own Robert De Niro. The son of a poet laureate with early ambitions in woodwork and late ones in shoe making, Day-Lewis is a method actor and something of an accepted industry recluse. It's as if the soles of his homemade footwear are allergic to red carpets. Who can blame him? These days, the limelight is more the site of a kill on which paparazzi feast. For those unfamiliar with the thespian term, 'method', it's a word used to describe actors who immerse themselves in their characters' lives to a great extent by way of meticulous preparation. These men (and they are mostly men) rarely break out of character during production. The technique was advanced by acting guru Lee Strasberg in the 40s and 50s and just because Marilyn Monroe studied under him, doesn't make her a 'method' actor (just in case you suddenly feel the need to re-evaluate her oeuvre – and who hasn't?)
In There Will Be Blood, Day-Lewis is Daniel Plainview, a man who over the course of this lengthy but compelling character study, is dementedly deranged by time, power and intolerance. It is oft-reported that, like his 'method' peers, Day-Lewis makes a specific effort to stay in character throughout all of his shoots. Am I the only one to suggest that this dedication to one's craft is just the teeniest bit odd and not necessarily required to qualify as a dedicated and true artist? Dustin Hoffman and Laurence Olivier come to mind on the set of Marathon Man. Hoffman was badgering the director for reasons why his character would react in certain ways and tiredly, Olivier just suggested Hoffman simply acted it. In 2005, on 'Parkinson' (a long running UK chat show) Day-Lewis, who comes across as friendly, genuine and in some awe of the creative process, struggles to illuminate his craft while at the same time understanding that it's the mystery that drives him. He suggests that Olivier's throw-away line betrayed the fact that the great man didn't understand the process of acting in movies (the world seems to agree he was more than competent on the stage).
I idly wondered (on my darker and more mischievous days) what if the 'method' is just another way very manly actors put themselves through hell of sorts because secretly they know acting is not exactly working down a mine and really earning a crust? On the most unflattering and basic level, these people pretend in front of layers of glass for a living. Yes, when the performer has talent and goes beyond convincing, it's a wondrous sight to behold but this insistence of submerging one's own personality... Did Day-Lewis give up being a father for the months of shooting? How did his family react to having that bastard Plainview in the house? How many 'method' actresses are there? Do women know something we don't? 'Method' might be thespianic for 'macho', methinks. But is the 'method' truly to thank for such uncanny and powerhouse performances? Or are these men just incredibly and naturally talented, to be able to pretend with such biting conviction?
Day-Lewis was wise enough to remark that if sticking flowers up his arse worked then he'd do that instead. Good acting is being true, a cliché perhaps but there's a good reason it's a cliché. Day-Lewis stormed the awards circuit this year. There's a good reason for that too. Daniel Plainview is about as far from Day-Lewis the man as it may be possible to go without a skin colour change and a mastery of the Inuit language. I think some of that abyss between man and character is celebrated too. George Clooney hasn't (to my knowledge) strayed too far from the George Clooney persona in acting terms but Day-Lewis does it as a matter of course. As Daniel Plainview, he is truly and utterly mesmeric.
It's 1898 and the start of the black gold rush and for almost 15 minutes, there is no dialogue (I don't include a few grunts of pain and a few words Plainview speaks to himself). This is real film-making. Director Paul Thomas Anderson is so in charge of the piece, his work instantly reminded me of Kubrick's, rare praise indeed. The director's precision, the main character's unnerving curmudgeonly vivacity and the score's abrupt upsetting of convention all come together in a movie so full of class it could be the British Isles. A ruthless and driven man displays these traits without a word being spoken. We know what kind of a man he is because he is laying on the floor of an office staking his claim to a site with a broken leg. Apart from a compelling character study, There Will Be Blood also highlights what happens when the future butts up against the past, the former being the desire for oil and wealth and the latter, religious fundamentalism. These are big themes and Anderson acquits himself with astounding verve. The film 'feels' right in all sorts of ways (how's that for critical precision?) and you'll just have to watch it and 'feel' it too.
After a fellow oil worker dies, Plainview takes the (one presumes) wifeless man's child and raises him as his own. Aaaah, you may think. More like "Bastard!" In the same way that young men think that women are attracted by the sight of babies, then Plainview believes having a bonny faced boy as the face of Plainview Oil, he will engender trust. He soon amasses a significant fortune but it's not enough. Plainview does not want to win. He needs to stamp all competitors into the ground. After a tip off from a young villager, Plainview visits his town, Little Boston, California, in the rather weak guise of quail hunter (and son). The tipster's twin brother, Eli Sunday, matches Plainview in a dogged adherence to his own role-play. Sunday is the charismatic fraud of a preacher who keeps the town ruled by superstition and ritual. Plainview knows that Eli is the key to the town but strips it of its oil regardless. He goes head to head with Eli and in one astonishing scene Plainview is forced to confess his sins publicly in a straight deal to get land rights. This is Day-Lewis at the top of his and any one else's game. Eli, played by Paul Dano, is also superb throughout and how do I judge this? I wanted to strangle the son of a bitch the moment he'd 'cured' a woman's arthritis by casting Satan out of her hands. He does god very well. He also sounds uncannily like Gene Wilder in his gentler moments.
Apart from Day-Lewis's extraordinary transformation into John Huston and Anderson's Kubrickian direction, there is another feather in the movie's cap that elevates the enterprise to a higher plane. Jonny Greenwood is a relative newcomer to film scoring but a famous name to all Radiohead fans. This multi-talented musician composed an award winning piece commissioned by the BBC and because an excerpt of this piece appears on the soundtrack to Blood, it was judged to be ineligible for an Academy Award nomination which is as big a crime the Academy could commit. Dario Marianelli won for his cracking score for Atonement but that's not really the point.
I've not heard a film score in many years that is so perfectly judged. This isn't rock and roll, folks. It's like John Cage, Gyorgy Ligeti and John Corigliano all bet each other they could ape each other's styles and the resulting scores put into a pit and mashed together. But the score emerges as having a rich life of its own (I'm listening to it now). And just when you have a handle on it stylistically, it goes off in a completely different direction. It stitches the movie together and forms an almost constant commentary on Plainview's state of mind. It does call attention to itself on a number of occasions (dramatically valid and all that) but instead of announcing "Here's something you've not heard before..." it nestles in the lap of the movie even more (usually showy scores stick out like remorse in the White House).
For such a dark story and a muted colour palette, There Will Be Blood shines in very different ways. This movie teases out the sort of compelling that excuses a long running time. Pace is the drummer to whom Anderson marches (Magnolia was too long? Get out of here) and his instincts are proved again and again absolutely on the nail. And then there's the ending. I will not spoil anyone's enjoyment of the film by revealing anything significant but like No Country For Old Men, there was a definite "Say, what?" as the film ended. It didn't so much as end as stop. Once again, unresolved narrative pokes its head out and isn't lopped off at the neck. It's embraced as if it has some purchase on the chaotic truth of things (there's a thought). But again, Blood, like Country, can be viewed almost completely allegorically. It's really not hard to see Daniel Plainview as every black heart who's graced the screen. And what a magnificent bastard he is.