I don’t agree with Stephanie Zancharek’s lamentation on the Kabuki hysterics to which Daniel Day-Lewis resorts in There Will Be Blood: to these eyes it’s a tensile, spare, quiet performance. If there’s one way in which it could be criticized, it’s how easily Paul Thomas Anderson’s movie follows Day-Lewis’ cue. An actor can suggest tumult and mystery; it’s much harder for a film, especially one with epic ambitions. It is possible: Lawrence of Arabia found storytelling correlatives for Peter O’Toole’s neurotic moos, one of the few performances in film that fuses the introspective with the histrionic (O’Toole would spend the rest of his career splitting the two, equally capable of Becket and My Favorite Year).
But, with all apologies to Pauline Kael, Lawrence didn’t shirk geopolitics; we learn something about how the Sykes-Picot treaty provoked ancient enmities that weren’t buried deep enough in all the sand that Lean and cinematographer Freddie Young imbued with Bowles-esque menace. As I’ve written already, PTA’s the kind of filmmaker whose ascetics adduce his superiority to the temporal, “dated” nonsense of politics. Day-Lewis understands how the discovery of a new resource to be exploited warps Plainview’s already perverse view of human relations. We see Plainview at his plainest in exchanges with fellow plutocrats (Ned says that one encounter “makes [us] wish [we] were anywhere else in the world other than opposite the table from him”). But these scene crumble into set pieces; they don’t accrete into the bluntness we expect from Upton Sinclair. Maybe PTA has it in him to surpass the source material, in the same way that Orson Welles injected so much tension and nuance into The Magnificent Ambersons that it momentarily turned Booth Tarkington into Henry James (David Thomson once joked that it makes film adaptations of Henry James look like Booth Tarkington).
I can’t stop thinking about this film. I want more than I got.
As for Day-Lewis, what now? Do you let yourself slum in a Ridley Scott film? When he’s collected his second Oscar next Sunday, will he decide that shoemaking is the best vehicle for his talent after all?