As we approach the one-year anniversary of Daniel Day-Lewis’ retirement announcement, I revisited the film most commonly cited as the pinnacle of his career: director Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood. The 2007 psychological drama is a window into the life of fictional oil tycoon Daniel Plainview. The film is loosely based on Upton Sinclair’s 1926 novel Oil!, but it is clear that Anderson’s research didn’t end there. His attention to detail and devotion to transplanting his audience into the setting are evident.
And with the first shot, Anderson does just that. Cinematographer Robert Elswit captures a bleak desert landscape as the powerful score heightens our anxiety. After just one scene, the audience has a clear understanding of Plainview’s vehement desire for wealth. As the film progresses, his mental health deteriorates, and we are repeatedly horrified by the manifestations of his narcissism and paranoia.
Paul Dano gives a fantastic supporting performance as Eli Sunday, a young, captivating preacher of a town that Plainview hopes to seize in order to drill for oil. From their first interaction, the two are set on a collision course, and the ensuing conflict makes for one of the most interesting subplots of the film.
While Day-Lewis’s performance is rightfully lauded, perhaps under-appreciated is Anderson’s directorial work that fosters such spectacular acting. Anderson allows Plainview to command the camera; our attention is often drawn from the more obvious action to the protagonist’s face as we are forced behind the eyes of the oil man. There Will Be Blood is an exercise in persuading the audience to believe that the true place of interest is Plainview’s mind, despite the violence and external horrors.
Day-Lewis’ method-acting approach to the role clearly pays off here: Plainview is terrifying and has an enormous presence. From his voice to his motion, the beauty of this performance is in the details.
And that kind of approach will be missed with the retirement of Day-Lewis, who took only twenty-something roles in his career that spanned almost five decades. Rarely has an actor had so much success across such chameleonic performances.