Daniel Day-Lewis has been in only 5 films over the last 15 years. And maybe that's a good thing.
He has a screen presence like no one else alive. Its very intensity and power threatens to overwhelm a film because everyone and everything else pales next to him. In There Will Be Blood the fabric of the universe ripples around his every move. Other characters are pulled towards him or ejected away. He's in every scene because he must be.
His being is well used in Gangs of New York as well, since no one in their right mind would ever expect tiny Leo DiCaprio to survive him. You expect Bill the Butcher to eat him right there on screen. Swallowing him without chewing.
His Daniel Plainview, an oilman, threatens to consume the entire film in Blood. But he doesn't. The film is technically sublime. Johnny Greenwood's (of Radiohead fame) score is excellent and unusual. The editing is sharp for a 160-minute film. And the Cinematography is stunning, even drifting towards the experimental in the humbling derrick fire sequence. Under PT Anderson's grip, Day-Lewis does what he needs him to in order to fulfill the script (very loosely based on Upton Sinclair's Oil!).
But what is the script exactly? Is it a story or a stunt? In the very first sequence, Plainview is at his most sympathetic and in the final sequence he has become unbearable. And every scene in between, sequentially, pushes him further and further down into darkness. Almost a reverse character arc. A graph to illustrate:
The result? For me it was a direct emotional reaction. After a while, I didn't care what happened next. That can be argued as a success, in that Anderson got such a reaction by carefully constructing a monstrous character. Or it can be argued as a failure. A story needs two sides to exist, the writer and the audience. If the writer turns away his or her audience, then one's left with just a guy shouting at the wind.
I hesitate to qualify the final product as a success or not. The very fact that I couldn't care less about where the film was going (after the final scene with Henry), doesn't chalk up as a good thing to me. But Day-Lewis's strong depiction of Plainview as a paranoid narcissist -- mixing all of the feared (projected?) qualities of the real life two Dicks (Nixon and Cheney), along with a crippling whiskey habit, and a self-perpetuating need to bludgeon the small and weak -- proves excellent. Also, Anderson's continuing exploration of father-son struggles has become more detailed with each new film. Finally, the aforementioned exemplary craft that went into the film creates a detailed small universe unique to modern cinema.
But of what worth is a lavish dinner if it loses all flavor before you're done eating? This goes for the performance behind Planview as well. The sheer power and skill illuminates his character far beyond what can be written on the page. Yet as he descends to the almost ridiculous (I believe Variety referred to it as "slapstick") ending, this viewer was propelled away like so many of the film's characters. And I was left desiring one of those milkshakes that Plainview talked about.
And I didn't want to share it with anyone...