I always regarded Robert De Niro as being the definitive method acting master. Whether training to be as fit as a professional boxer or ballooning out for the flipside of that dual role in Raging Bull, learning the Sicilian dialect for Godfather Part II or running a cab 12 hours a day for a month to prepare for Taxi Driver, he always went way beyond the call of duty to bring a true sense of realism to his roles. He chose his roles quite carefully and dedicated himself to making the absolute best out of them. Of late, however, his decisions have been dubious at best - his movies of questionable quality. Godsend? Hide and Seek? What happened to this once great method man? Daniel Day-Lewis, on the other hand, is one of those actors who appears to have done far fewer movies, eschewing Hollywood mainstream and truly staying true to his art. If you look back across his career, it is apparent that he too has given his all to every role, embracing the very different characters and taking method acting to the next level. In addition, he has never betrayed his skills or sold out to do Rocky and Bullwinkle. He has portrayed a man with cerebral palsy in My Left Foot, a suspected IRA terrorist in In the Name of the Father, and a brutal, knife-wielding turn-of-the-Century gang leader in Gangs of New York, embracing the roles to such an extent that you often forget that it is even an actor on screen. Few of his kind have achieved such a feat even once across their entire careers, and almost nobody has managed to retain such depth of character in almost every single role that they have chosen. Day-Lewis has maintained this high method acting standard in part thanks to long breaks between movies and careful choices at those he did sign on to, and this has always been the price we pay - we always want more from him. Thankfully, no matter how many times he takes a hiatus and seemingly retires, it's always worth the wait when he comes back to our screens. And There Will Be Blood is the perfect example.
It's the turn-of-the-Century and the gold rush is at fever pitch, but things are tough for prospector Daniel Plainview. Instead, however, he strikes it lucky with oil, expanding his drilling plots to include a potentially prolific source which happens to be on the land of a Godfearing little town in California. In the midst of all of this he takes in a young orphaned boy - establishing himself as running a “family” business - and faces opposition from the preacher-son of the family whose land he needs to fuel his expansion, as well as competition from other big oil names who seek to muscle him out.
There are a lot of selling points to this movie - it has a lot going for it - but you can still boil it all down to something quite simple. This is an exercise in method acting at its peak. This is Daniel Day-Lewis becoming Daniel Plainview. And this is an epic exploration of one man's dark obsession with success and twisted view of family and loyalty. There are few actors who have so utterly captivated, driving an entire movie almost single-handedly. DeNiro did it with Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull, DiCaprio did it with Howard Hughes in The Aviator, but arguably they both had advantages - Bull had the punch of the boxing theme, Aviator had the thrills of the planes - Day-Lewis manages to pull it off in what is, ostensibly, just a movie about one man's slow, brooding, morally dubious quest to drill oil. On paper it seems ridiculous that audiences could possibly want to sit through such an affair, but once you start down this intriguing road, you will find yourself unable to leave your seat.
It's Day-Lewis' baby through and through. He simply chews up everything around him, overshadowing all of the other characters, and practically scaring the audience into humble submission. He is a force to be reckoned with. He is also the only person who can make a metaphor involving milkshakes still sound threatening. Even his accent and intonation is perfect, apparently modelled on the late actor/director John Huston. If you re-watch Chinatown you can see the similarities instantly. Day-Lewis' Plainview is dark, shady, and pretty nasty, but utterly compelling. And the actor is a genius for making him such. The only other actor of note is probably Paul Dano (you might remember as the voluntarily mute son from Little Miss Sunshine), in the dual role of the Sunday brothers. The bigger of these two roles is Eli Sunday, the young town preacher who is totally and utterly unlikeable. Patronizing, slimy and overbearing, as well as being immature and in way over his head, he is portrayed in such a way that you end up often siding with the focal character of Plainview, despite the fact that this man is extremely dark himself. It's not even a question of the lesser of two evils, Plainview is easily the more dangerous of the two, but the pretentiousness with which Eli Sunday covers his corruption and desire under the lily white guise of religious conviction (contrasting Plainview's fairly blunt demeanour -he makes no bones about his ambition) somehow makes his character far more despicable.
There Will Be Blood is almost unique in its subject matter, totally character-driven and extremely powerful at that. It is also the most unlikely tale to garner this much interest and acclaim. A period movie charting the rise of one nasty, greedy oil-magnet? Lasting two and a half-hours? When I first heard about it, I shuddered. I thought, give me Batman Begins, give me Goodfellas, give me Superbad. But don't be put off, this really is a tremendous film - one of the best films I have seen over the last 12 months (and there have been some pretty good films that have come out of late). It is an exercise in expert direction, expert method-acting and supreme filmmaking in that classic old-school way that doesn't require Tony Scott fast-editing, Jerry Bruckheimer explosions, Oliver Stone film stocks, Brian De Palma angles or Lucas effects. It's not that I don't enjoy various movies from all of the above - but P.T. Anderson's There Will Be Blood goes against the grain and still manages to be amazing. It is to Citizen Kane what Gone Baby Gone is to Chinatown, or even what Michael Clayton is to The Parallax View, and it is easy to see why it was a tough choice between Clooney and Day-Lewis for the Oscar. I think it's probably right that Day-Lewis' powerful performance in Blood win out over Clooney's understated and complex role in Clayton, but it's a close call nonetheless. And I can only hope that we are seeing the start of a return to the classic style of days long forgotten, where characterisation takes precedent over cliché, storytelling over stylisation and subtle observation wins out over MTV oversaturation. And if, after all I've said, you need just one reason to see this movie, let it be Daniel Day-Lewis. As with DiCaprio in The Aviator, his is this key performance that drives the proceedings. And by the time the end credits role, fear not, the rest of the reasons why this movie is a modern-day classic will become clear. Highly recommended.
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