Film

Goodbye Daniel Day-Lewis and Thanks for the Best Film Ever

Day-Lewis is quitting acting. Let's re-examine "There Will Be Blood"
21 June 2017, 6:48am

Daniel Day-Lewis—the metàmorph method actor often cited as the greatest of his generation—has announced his retirement. The only male artist to have three wins in the best-actor category at the Academy Awards ( My Left Foot, There Will Be Blood, Lincoln), Day-Lewis is choosy with projects, his career punctuated by long absences from stage and screen. Notorious for the extreme lengths he takes in researching and embodying a role (devoutly remaining in character on set, learning Czech etc), Day-Lewis is an enigmatic genius who has managed to avoid the Hollywood rise and fall rinse-cycle while remaining a subject of revered fascination.

With today's announcement, Paul Thomas Anderson's Phantom Thread (slated for a December release), will be Day-Lewis's final role. It's a perfect way to bookend a singular career, as Daniel Day-Lewis's performance as Daniel Plainview in Anderson's There Will Be Blood (2007) is pretty much one of the greatest ever put to film.

Related: Watch VICE interview Paul Thomas Anderson here.

For the uninitiated or those who are strictly devoted to clean energy, There Will Be Blood is Paul Thomas-Anderson's masterful portrait of American capitalism, explored via the life and times of violent megalomaniac and oil-man, Daniel Plainview (played by Day-Lewis). The typical readings of TWBB as a film about greed, economics, religious zealously, masculinity, and failed fatherhood are all apt and proper but usually lose sight of the deep humanism of a film which, as if by magic, creates a wholly realised and living figure in the contradictorily expansive character of Plainview.

Day-Lewis's performance moves beyond the sublime in the film's opening. The first 20 or so minutes of TWBB have no dialogue. In the void is the raw physicality of Day-Lewis's Plainview, who we see swinging a pickaxe in the bottom of a mineshaft, chasing gold. There is something so absolute in the starkness of this opening—Day-Lewis balances raw unbroken power with a looming sense of fragility and mortality. When the ladder-rung snaps and Plainview plummets to the bottom of the shaft, we feel it. Likewise, we feel the gravel as he drags himself on his belly back to town, trailing a broken leg. The grim silence underscores a character that spends the rest of the film running laps around people with his silver-tongue or terrifying them with his unchecked fury. When in the third act he tells his competitors, "Yeah, you fellows just scratch around in the dirt and find it like the rest of us instead of buying up someone else's hard work," we feel the weight of his words, feel his drive. Because Day-Lewis (and Anderson) let us peek in at his desperation at the outset.

TWBB, like most of Anderson's oeuvre, is littered with non-actors, cult comedians (Paul F Tompkins, Jim Downey), and fledgling character actors (Paul Dano). Day-Lewis's dynamism and feverous adherence to character lends startling authenticity to every interaction. Much is made of the moments between Day-Lewis and Dano (more on that later), but it's the chemistry between Day-Lewis and young non-actor Dillon Freasier, who plays "bastard from a basket" HW, that steals the show. Freasier's mother hadn't head of Day-Lewis, and watched Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York to get an idea of the man—Anderson later leant her My Left Foot, to calm her down.

The film hinges on the fraudulent fatherhood of Plainview, and Day-Lewis conveys the character getting lost in his own con with a heart-warming gentleness. When Plainview gives his business spiel, he refers to HW as his "son and his partner." As he tells the adult HW, he used him as a prop ("a pretty face") to win over rubes. But through moments of macro-intimacy we see Plainview's genuine affection for the boy, who comes to form the closest thing the oil man has to a conscious. When HW earnestly asks how much they'll pay the oil rich Sunday ranch, Day-Lewis gives the slightest wince before telling him that: "Well, I'm not going to give them oil prices. I'll give them quail prices." The most devastating moments in the film come from the growing rift between HW and Plainview. The contrast of body language between Plainview abandoning HW on the train and him rocking a baby HW in a similar carriage a decade prior speaks volumes.

Day-Lewis's power comes in this appreciation of gesture, of his organic shifting of body, the weight given to a glare. He peppers his performance with raw moments of movement and intonation that form a naturalism that can seem un-filmic and uncanny. We see this when Plainview shoots out his arm to catch the paying Mary Sunday, loudly tell her that her daddy won't beat her anymore, then shooting the nearby father a menacing curl of the lip. We see it when Plainview turns to his staff in exasperation after they ask if he can build the pipeline around the Bandy tract, the line "Can I build around 50 miles of Tehachapi Mountains? Don't be thick in front of me, Al" emanating from Day-Lewis's hunched shoulders. Each tilt forward is laden with violence and rage, be it Plainview leaning in to tell his competitor, "One night, I'm gonna come to you, inside of your house, wherever you're sleeping, and I'm gonna cut your throat," or in the clenched lower teeth and manic stare on Plainview's face as he floats in the ocean, and realises that Henry isn't his real brother.

For me, the key Plainview gesture is when he leans in with a Trumpian handshake for Eli after his embarrassing baptism confessional. That split second moment lends raw horror to the finale, especially to the line "I told you I would eat you."

There is not one moment you can pin in Day-Lewis's performance in TWBB that speaks fully to the brilliance of the character and his characterisation. Day-Lewis's performance is so complete, so informed, so embodied in its believability and wildness, that Plainview, for all intents and purposes, may as well have existed—preserved like afterbirth "in a jar on the mantelpiece."

For me, the moment when Day-Lewis and Plainview eclipse one another comes in the quiet confessional he delivers to his false brother Henry on the porch of his tiny cabin: "I have a competition in me. I want no one else to succeed… there are times when I look at people and I see nothing worth liking. I want to earn enough money I can get away from everyone."

Day-Lewis, who once left acting to become a cobbler, who has spent a career shunning fame, but who can't not disappear into a role like a pure artist who finds meaning in little else, is as much Plainview as he is Johnny in My Beautiful Laundrette. I find it difficult to believe that a man of such talent and verve is spent, empty, that the straw reached all the way across the room, and drank him up like a milkshake.

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