Daniel Plainview, Day-Lewis and directors.

17Jul11

I suspect I’ll say nothing new here that wasn’t already implicit in what I wrote last month. Back then I showered There Will Be Blood in praise. I couldn’t quite fathom the depth of its magnificence, and I was left spellbound by Day-Lewis. Bardem in Biutiful was something, as was Vivien Leigh in A Streetcar. But, those aside, I probably haven’t felt this way about an acting performance since I saw Brando in On The Waterfront. Revisiting this towering piece of cinema last night, I couldn’t resist adding a few words.

First, on the increasingly obvious absurdity of auteur theory in my mind. I imagine anyone who watches films without too much reflection will already think this, and that probably speaks volumes in itself; but whilst most people would explain the value of a film in terms of the quality of the acting, the power of the performances, those considering themselves more sophisticated viewers (myself included) seem to have a tendency to sneer at this common judgement and instead focus on directors.

Now, I of course don’t wish to dispute the primacy of the director as cinema’s most important person. That when thinking of ‘film,’ the likes of Hitchcock and Scorsese should be the first names coming to one’s mind, is something I would never question, and I continue to largely pick what I watch on the basis of directors. I definitely do wish to dispute, however, their alleged monopoly on artistic merit. Anderson’s role here in making a masterpiece is unquestionable, but what There Will Be Blood shows is equally obvious is just how crucial actors can be as creative forces. Day-Lewis’ method – his long, reclusive months in solitude becoming the person he’s later to embody – is as significant to making the film great as Anderson’s careful hours writing the screenplay and planning its texture. Anderson creates behind the camera; Day-Lewis creates infront of our eyes.

I’m recalling that voice, that polished delivery of his sales pitch towards the beginning, right after that silent, lengthy opening where we see man’s raw path to prosperity, the gritty groundwork that literally fuelled our way of life. I’m thinking of the humiliating confirmation scene, the roars about abandoning his child. But then, when you think he can’t raise the bar any higher, there’s those final fifteen minutes of repulsive insanity. It’s a show of genuine, unrefined evil. He becomes the most sickening and horrifying man we’ll ever watch.

On that note, I think the final line – “I’m finished” – is an extremely devilish piece of dark humour. Think carefully and you’ll recall that throughout the mocking of Eli, Plainview’s chewing on cuts of beef. When his butler comes down the stairs, the sheer normality of the delivery can only mean he’s asking that his dinner plate is taken away. Another awful sign of the callous indifference he seems to radiate as his life progresses.

And that is the final mystery surrounding this nuanced, twisted, confused character. One wonders whether he can be rendered coherent, and whether this is even desirable given that people this intriguing but malicious are probably going to be unintelligible. I study Day-Lewis’ face in every scene, wondering what the hell his dark looks mean. Some events suggest everything is a facade, instrumental to the relentless pursuit of oil, oil, oil; yet some lines seem so sincere that one wonders if his early character was more ethically nourished than his later madness would have one believe. Either way, the result is the most compelling of enigmas. I’d excuse all this hyperbole, but There Will Be Blood sends me to a different world.

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