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Daniel Day-Lewis

January 22, 2008

If you want to a brilliant actor turn your stomach to knots and your head to putty, go and see Daniel Day-Lewis in Paul Thomas Anderson's movie There Will Be Blood. Day-Lewis plays a hard-bitten, shrewd oil prospector, Daniel Plainview, who manages to coerce a small, god-fearing Californian community into letting him come in, set up shop and take over. The film is set in the late 19th / early 20th century and is based on the Upton Sinclair novel, Oil!

What's extraordinary about Day-Lewis' performance is that his character is a black hole that we can't help but take great pains to fill.

Plainview is a sort of Bartleby-type character. The only thing we know for sure about him is the reason for his slight limp. We don't find out anything else about his past besides and we barely have any clue what's going on inside his head except his desire to make money. Like Melville's famous scrivener, Plainview "prefers not to" let us know anything about him.

And while we never really empathize with Day-Lewis' character who never smiles and is a bit of a bully, the actor manages to make us respect him and gives us a desire to fill in the blanks ourselves (which we do, for hours, after the film is over.) He makes us desperate to know what's behind his face -- a rocky promontory on a wind-scarred coastline that is dented by time yet seems impervious to the elements. Did he kill his wife? Is his son really just a foundling, a useful accessory to getting landowners to give up their land? Does he love his son? Was he always this miserable? What is it exactly about this character that makes his associates respect him so? Is there a part of him that sees himself as a savior? Where was he educated and what makes him spend his life down dangerous mine-shafts tinkering with explosives?

I'd give anything to spend time on a film set with Day-Lewis and see how he works. I wonder though, if there'd be anything much to see. He seems like the kind of actor who inhabits his part like its part of him. I wouldn't be surprised if there were no switch between the performer and the role he plays.



    Above is a link to a conversation with the director and actor on Charlie Rose.

    I like your Bartleby reference. I came out of the theatre knowing I had seen something brilliant but feeling a little at a loss for something. That last scene was absurd.

    I'm not sure the rest of the film was up to Lewis' performance. Even though we hardly knew him, which was just fine, the characters and settings around him were sentimentalized. As if he had blasted into some postcard of a world. His co-star was certainly not up to his level. And that is too bad. He is the best, but for a film to be great he has to have the best actors, and story, to play off of. So close.

    Mr. Stick

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At January 23, 2008 at 12:52 PM  

  • Thanks for posting that link, Mr. Stick. Will check it out forthwith. I agree with what you say regarding the rest of the cast. Paul Dano in particular seemed ill at ease in the role of the young preacher. It doesn't help of course that I can't shake the image of him flipping burgers in the film version of Fast Food Nation...

    By Blogger Chloe Veltman, At January 23, 2008 at 1:21 PM  

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