Reading People

>> Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Not the magazine.

Just finished reading Stephanie Zacharek's article "Too Good to Be Great" on Daniel Day-Lewis' performance in There Will Be Blood.

Day-Lewis may have located what he thinks is the heart of Daniel Plainview, but he has forgotten to take us with him on the journey. When Plainview quizzes his supposed half-brother (played by Kevin J. O'Connor) about facts from the family's past the impostor ought to know, we see blank calculation in his eyes but no glow of revelation, no gradual unfolding of rage or passion.
Hmmm, I guess I just thought Mr. Plainview figured it out already when he went back into the ocean and scowled back toward the beach where his "brother" was resting. I guess Ms. Zacharek missed that part. He already knew what he wanted to know and was looking for confirmation from this man so he could justifiably kill him for deceiving him. She goes on about DDL not depicting Plainview's heart:
And even then, Day-Lewis plays emotions, not objectives -- that is, he decides on the emotion, or the effect, instead of allowing the emotion to emerge from the situation. We may know what Plainview is feeling (or not feeling) by the look on his face, but Day-Lewis, hampered by his heavy brocade cloak of technique, is less effective at navigating the fine gradations of action necessary to define a supposedly complex character. Why does Plainview feel and act the way he does? We never know. I'm not looking for anything as simple as a line of dialogue -- "He didn't get enough love from his mother" or some other such nonsense. What I long for in the character of Daniel Plainview, and don't get, are contradictions, elusive trails that might lead us into some hidden cave of thought, memory or desire. The performance is all intention, no exploration -- a conclusion instead of a set of questions.
Gee, I guess the audience isn't allowed to decide on Plainview's motives for themselves. Zacharek wants it spelled out for everyone with no ambiguity.
There's nothing inherently wrong with an actor's choosing to give a stylized performance rather than a naturalistic one. But if the performance fails -- as this one does -- then it comes off as an act of vanity, a flashy turn instead of one that casts steady illumination.
She completely misreads the character and the time the character was in. I found Plainview to be very naturalistic for his time. What seems naturalistic to us today would be very theatrical a hundred years ago. People were much more restrained back in the early twentieth century. I've heard stories of my great-grandfather and I can totally envision Plainview existing at the beginning of the 20th century.
The final scene of "There Will Be Blood" features an act of horror played as a miniature screwball comedy. But even this scene comes off as more absurd than operatic; it's overly pleased with its manufactured grimness. In these last moments of the movie, meticulously calibrated for maximum shock and dismay, Day-Lewis slouches toward some penultimate revelation, but he's crippled in a way his Christy Brown never was. As he sputters the movie's most memorable, and most idiotic line, "I drink your milkshake!" he's loving the moment, not living it.
I haven't read a lot of the publicity material for There Will Be Blood. But one detail that I do remember reading was that Paul Thomas Anderson took the "milkshake" line from the Teapot Dome scandal--directly from history. It seemed clear to me that Plainview loved telling that fact to Eli. The film was inspired or adapted from Upton Sinclair's OIL! book. I think it's quite telling that the film is not titled "Oil" or something that more commonly refers to it. I think it should be quite obvious what it infers about the main character--not someone who is soft-hearted or with an inkling toward consideration other people regardless of what happened. DDL's performance directly relates to the overall scope of the picture, something Ms. Zacharek seems to have missed.


Janel 20 February, 2008 08:34  

Agreed. Granted, I'm not going to read Stephanie Z's whole article, but it's pretty clear in the movie that Plainview notices his brother might not be his brother on the beach when he mentions a house from where they grew up.

There's a difference between characters and characterizations. Characterizations are one-note, simple to understand. Characters are complex, and the more realistic they are, the more complex they are.

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