Daniel Plainview

Stephanie Zacharek complains that Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance as Daniel Plainview in Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood is an enormous misfire:

Day-Lewis doesn’t so much give a performance as offer a character design, an all-American totem painstakingly whittled from a twisted piece of wood… I recently received an e-mail letter from a professional actor who was dismayed both by Day-Lewis’ performance and by audiences’ response to it: “Weird how so many people confuse ‘acting that you can see’ with great acting,” he wrote — as concise and honest a summation of the way we want to be impressed by craft as I’ve ever read…. 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… His performance in “There Will Be Blood” is wrought, not felt: It shows the grit of discipline and forethought but lacks spontaneity, fire, life… Day-Lewis portrays Daniel Plainview as if he were playing to a mirror, not an audience. The character’s self-loathing comes off, paradoxically and unintentionally, as a manifestation of an actor’s self-love…. Caught in the trappings of supposed greatness, [Day-Lewis] is just an actor, a puppeteer pulling a series of color-coded strings to make us think and feel.

(via Green Cine)

I quote this remarkable critique at length because I think it is a brilliant description of Day-Lewis’s performance. Except for one thing. Everything that Zacharek deplores about the performance is precisely what, to my mind, makes it so great. Day-Lewis’ performance “lacks spontaneity, fire, life,” because Daniel Plainview as a character is entirely devoid of these attributes. He’s an empty shell, a hollow man, a mask without a face, a collection of annoying tics and raging drives with no interiority behind it.

Or — to cite yet another blog — as American Stranger rightly put it, “Plainview is not really a character, not a psychological or biographical portrait of a human being, but a mask. There is more than a void behind it (no existentialism here) but far less than a man. ‘He’ is simply capital embodied in the shape of a familiar archetype…”

Day-Lewis’ mannerism is perfectly suited to this sort of (non)character. I think of the moment when the preacher boy Eli Sunday (Paul Dano) comes to Plainview to ask to bless the opening of the well. Plainview pauses (discomfited), then says (in a slightly stilted manner) words to the effect of how kind of you, yes, I will be glad for you to do that. And then, in the very next scene, Plainview ignores Eli entirely when he is opening the well, bringing forth Eli’s sister instead, keeping his face blank so as to offer no response to Eli’s own first imploring, and then angry looks.

At the end of the film, in Plainview’s final confrontation with Eli, Day-Lewis plays the part no differently; there is therefore a weirdly discomfiting disconnect between affective expression and action. And this is true of everything he does in the film. No matter how crazed, raging, and over-the-top Plainview’s words and actions are, the acting is not over-the-top at all; it remains bizarrely, overly mannered, and therefore disconcertingly flat and distanced.

And this utterly mannered “inauthenticity” is in fact the most terrifying thing about Plainview: it would be far more comforting if he were to rant and rage, or even just to hint at an inner life (no matter how inaccessible to us) in the way that Orson Welles does as Charles Foster Kane, or that John Huston does as Noah Cross in Chinatown (to name just some of the performances to which Day-Lewis’s has wrongly been compared).

For Plainview has no feelings to hide, let alone to express or to confess; as “capital personified,” he is truly Homo economicus, every move and gesture calibrated according to some calculus of utility maximization. One of the charming paradoxes of capitalist society is precisely that human beings almost never act in the ways that they are supposed to, according to “rational choice” theory or neoclassical economic theory; only Capital itself “behaves” this way. Even Plainview’s rashest and most impulsive acts, like the murders he commits, are crimes of calculation, or at least of mechanism, rather than crimes of passion. (Of course, murder is not “utility maximizing” if you get caught and prosecuted; but we are given little sense that Plainview ever will be).

In this way, Day-Lewis’ performance gives us a precise and powerful sense of just how “inhuman” and “monstrous,” capital-logic, or action according to so-called revealed preference, can be. Marx famously compared Capital to a vampire, dead labor feeding on living labor. There Will Be Blood suggests that the more accurate figure would be a zombie: Capital as undead, as animated from the outside by raging vitalistic forces, and utterly unable to “subjectively assume” these forces. Capitalism as a form of acting that gives (in Zacharek’s words) “a stylized performance rather than a naturalistic one.”

However, I must add that, in its stylization and antirealism, Day-Lewis’ performance precisely is naturalistic — understanding “naturalism” in the sense of Zola’s novels, or of von Stroheim’s Greed (the film of which There Will Be Blood is, as it were, the postmodern version). Naturalism, as Deleuze says in his discussion of von Stroheim, “describes a precise milieu, but … also exhausts it.” We do not get psychological portraits in naturalism, rather, “impulses are extracted from the real modes of behavior current in a determinate milieu, from the passions, feelings, and emotions which real men experience in this milieu” (Cinema 1, page 124). Day-Lewis’s performance is extracted from the milieu of feral-capitalist-early-20th-century-California in the same way that silver, and then oil, are extracted from the ground (hence the overwhelming physicality of Plainview digging underground in the almost wordless first ten minutes of the movie, as well as the visceral violence of the oil rig on fire, which conveys a “phallic” emotional charge in a way that Plainview himself — in Day-Lewis’ rigorous performance — never does). Plainview is a creature of “impulses” that never become “subjectified.” (The absolute equivalence between naturalist “impulse” and capitalist “rational calculation” is not in the least paradoxical, though it is a delicious irony of capitalist society, and one that could never have arisen in any other sort of social formation).

The way that Day-Lewis “inhabits” the (non)character of a soulless man who is entirely a vessel of Capital is even more astonishing than the way that, nearly two decades ago, he was able to inhabit the body and soul of a man ravaged by cerebral palsy, and inwardly triumphant over his outer adversity. In a few days, we will see if the Academy has the wit to award Day-Lewis a second Oscar.

29 thoughts on “Daniel Plainview”

  1. You make a wonderful case for Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance. I loved the film when I was watching it. Then I found myself gradually losing affection for it as I thought about it. But now I’m sensing that, were I to watch it again, the pendulum would swing back again. Interestingly, my friend Steven Rubio wrote interestingly yesterday about the acting in Michael Clayton. He’s not taking your approach, obviously. Yet I found his focus on the acting of George Clooney running through my head as I read your entry. Maybe what the world — or at least the world of theory lovers that you and I inhabit — needs now is a return to thinking hard about acting, in both a circumscribed technical sense and more broadly, as way of pondering the relationship between performance and identity.

  2. Plainview even discourages Paul Sunday from trusting the cosmetic markers of oil very early in the film. He remarks that just because something is visible “it doesn’t mean there is anything beneath it.” His insistence on an impenetrable interiority masks his own penchant for drilling. Plainview embraces the pipeline rather than the above-ground railroad not only because it will bolster profits, but also because the subterranean vein obfuscates Capital’s structure. For a film so overtly concerned with surfaces and what lurks beneath them (oil, familial history), capitalism is not only characterized as the creator of impulsive inauthenticity, but also as an extractor of depths. (“I drink your milkshake…”) Plainview’s gyrations are not pathological but the byproduct of parasitic economics emptying various reservoirs.

  3. Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant analysis! I jut got done watching this film tonight, and I too was struck by the masterful and affectless way that Plainview embodied the capitalistic mode. The ending was very compelling for me in its ruthlessness, flatness and abruptness. Also, I was intrigued by the way Daniel Day-Lewis portrayed Plainview towards the end. After all the “success” and capitalistic conquest there is no jubilant celebration of accomplishment, all you see is a man in a kind torment but it seems to be totally without affect or anxiety. Just the unfeeling and persistent churn of the capitalistic process embodied in the flesh of Plainview.

    I agree Daniel Day-Lewis deserves an oscar for this film.

  4. Dear Steven,
    Why you don´t talk about the whole movie? I would like to know your point of view about it. So great it is the acting of Day-Lewis (and your wonderful reading of it), I think is another piece (one of the principals, without doubt) of the weird mechanism put in work by Anderson.
    What do you think?

  5. Thanks for rebutting Zacharek, Mr. Shaviro. In my mind, the unbearable tension in the movie comes directly from the character, as interpreted by DDL. Plainview is an ACTOR; he is ACTING like an Oilman; ACTING like a father; ACTING as if he is a good person. His only advantage over the other characters is the force of his performace. He is, in essence, a better social actor than anyone else is the film. He is able to hide his true self better than anyone, at a cost of course, the cost being that, by the end of the film, he can no longer bear the weight of his own performance. That’s why his backstory makes not a whit of difference, nor what happens to him after he is done beating Sunday to death. The character of Plainview, as conceived by Plainview, only exists for this one specific frame of time. This movie is partly about two ACTORS vying for the starring role in the burgeoning Theatre of America. By the end of the film Plainview is exhausted, wondering how much longer he is going to have to portray this man he invented, and Sunday is the trigger for the release of the person Plainview used to be before he “became” Plainview. In this respect, TWBB, and Plainview in particular, remind me of A History of Violence, another film about the psychic costs of grafting one persona on top of another, and how the fictional self, like poorly constructed building, can only stand for so long before collapsing in on itself. Just my two cents.

  6. I’m not agreeing with your assessment, SS of Plainview as a nonpsychological subject who’s motivated only by/as capital: here’s why. He’s a misanthrope: misanthropes are saturated by the sentimental (their huge disappointment with humans). PTA works hard to make us see that Plainview has a huge fund of sentimentality in his relation to intimates. So in the scene where he’s just told off his son (the orphan in a basket scene) the film cuts to home-movie-memories of Plainview manifesting gratuitous adoration of the kid; and of course too, when his ears are busted; and of course too when he covers his face with a napkin to taunt the other oil men, not wanting the child to read his lips as he instrumentalizes the boy. Lots of other evidence too: he’s a dyadic intimate, he can only have one male love at a time, and after the friend reveals he’s no brother there’s nothing left but the son, who’s having none of it apart from imitation, and Paul Dano, about which it’s too complex to say very much here. In short, I think that Plainview’s problem in the film is that he’s not non-psychological enough, that he keeps on telling stories about his non-loneliness and desire for isolation because he doesn’t fully believe them. He too is method acting as a misanthrope.
    Cheers! LB

  7. this is really good, i think you got the points that i missed. really interesting point about naturalism.

    LB’s point i think hits on a real ambiguity in both the writing and the performance — there’s a sentimentalism that i wrote off as the effects of other people’s values on him (i read the home movie sequences as heavily overdetermined), but i think it’s possible to read it the way LB does, as plainview trying to convince himself he’s a human being. this would make him more of a possession victim, i guess, than just a mask.

  8. These are great points, LB, especially about the connections between misanthropy, sentimentality, & method acting. I am less willing to “psychologize” Plainview than you areo (even understanding that we are talking about an affective psychology rather than an ego-centered one). This mostly has to do with our different (and unprovable either way) ways of reading affect-as-exteriority. But also it strikes me that most of the stuff you mention (e.g. “home-movie-memories) are functions more of PTA’s editing than of DDL’s performance (to the — admittedly only limited — degree that we can separate these), and that this makes for a difference in the type of exteriority that they manifest (this would have to be argued — as I do not have the time or energy to argue here — in terms of how editing works as “psychology” — a sort of associationism — and also, I think, in relation to what Deleuze says about the power of cliches in the realm of the time-image when the sensory-motor circuit has been disaggregated — both DDL’s mannerist tics and PTA’s use of home-movie-like flashbacks would have to be rethought in this register).

  9. Hello, Prof. Shaviro,
    Great to read this. I made some similar observations over at my blog a week ago.
    I too see him as pure affect (which is different from affectless, as one reader noted)–as a hollow shell. I think the early moments of the film (such as those with his adopted son) are deceptive in that we may be tempted to see them as sentimental or “overdetermined,” but its only because–prior to the very ending of the film–we want to hold onto some hope that there is some kind of core in Plainview But, in retrospect, the first 30 minutes of the film immediately establishes a man with no interest or connection to anyone else, except when they (or circumstances) insert themselves into his life.

  10. LB, its interesting that you bring up the “home movie scenes”. I read them in a completely different way. They did not strike me as sentimental moment emblematic of Plainview’s love for his adopted son. But rather the exact opposite. Affirmations of his ruthless and ulititarian relation with the orphan. Maybe I am being absurdly focused on details but when he caresses the boys head the telling moment is when he literally shoves the boy aside and proceeds to gaze at the oil coming out of the ground. It betrays a lack of sentimentality and reveals his true interest. The other moment is when after the boys accident Plainview says flatly that the boy is not ok and continues to gaze at the oil. No sententality just pure capitalistic lust. At least that is how I read it.

  11. Yes, absolutely, that was my intended point about the home movie shots: they’re *PTA’s* worry about allowing DP to be seen as having made a pure break with the sentimental qua affective universal, etc. The speech about his misanthropy made to his faux brother is also one of those closed/openings, claiming one thing while demonstrating another (demonstrating his need to have a minimal homosocial other with whom or which he can enact gestures revealing a tenderness). I need to figure out what your Deleuze sentence means and I’ll get back to you.

  12. Jason, thanks for recalling your own writing on the film — here — I especially like what you say about the affinities between Daniel Day-Lewis’ acting and characterization inTWBB and Adam Sandler’s in Punch-Drunk Love.

    Also see the take by Unemployed Negativity.

    LB — to try to clarify — what Gordon says above about the home-movie-like scenes is part of what I was trying to get at in citing Deleuze on “cliches.” In Deleuze’s terms, the slackening of the sensori-motor link allows images and sounds to float freely (he calls it “pure optical and sonic situations”). Deleuze vaguely cites the social changes in Europe after World War II, but in my misreading or appropriation of him, I see it rather as correlated with the regime of informatic capital or the network society or neoliberalism or the regime of simulacra (alternate names, depending on which aspect you want to emphasize). In any case, our time, now, when PTA made the movie (rather than the time in which the movie is set). AN Incessantly recycling overload of images/sounds as stereotypes, brands, cliches — this is what the filmmaker has to deal with, or uses as raw material. How to construct a singularity in the realm of cliches — as the problem facing filmmakers today — is a very different matter from how to construct a subjectivity in the face of the social forces of the Fordist era (which latter would be the problematic of classical Hollywood cinema). PTA is making a film about this earlier stage of capitalism (hence the echoes of naturalism and von Stroheim’s Greed) — or even looking back at “primitive accumulation” (see Unemployed Negativity’s post for this) — but within a perceptual and affective regime that is very much of his own, our own, time. I think that this relation is the key to understanding both the odd decenteredness of the acting style, and the way that the script invokes the sort of sentimentality or pathos that you are referring to.

  13. “Even Plainview’s rashest and most impulsive acts, like the murders he commits, are crimes of calculation, or at least of mechanism, rather than crimes of passion. (Of course, murder is not “utility maximizing” if you get caught and prosecuted; but we are given little sense that Plainview ever will be). ”

    From “No Country for Old Man”, a passage that comes to mind:
    “There was this boy I sent to the gas chamber at Huntsville here a while back. My arrest and my testimony. He killed a fourteen-year-old girl. Papers said it was a crime of passion but he told me there wasn’t any passion to it. Told me that he’d been planning to kill somebody for about as long as he could remember. Said that if they turned him out he’d do it again. Said he knew he was going to hell.”

  14. “I don’t know what to make of that. I surely don’t. The crime you see now, it’s hard to even take its measure. It’s not that I’m afraid of it. I always knew you had to be willing to die to even do this job – not to be glorious. But I don’t want to push my chips forward and go out and meet something I don’t understand. You can say it’s my job to fight it, but I don’t know what it is anymore. More than that, I don’t want to know. A man would have to put his soul at hazard. He would have to say, “O.K., I’ll be part of this world.”

    “Though their secrets are different, the real horror is that there are no secrets on the cause and effect level of narrative, that it is mystery and not truth which is constructed through the films’ artfully cut withholdings of information; that the ‘brute facts’ and the logic connecting those facts is artificially, even demiurgically, rendered unclear — mystified.”

    I just think that in his willingness to be “mystified”, which is itself a form of resignation (much like Ed Crane in “The Man Who Wasn´t There”), Ed Tom Bell embodies the question posed by “The American Strager” to both NCFOM and TWBB: “But is it irrational hope, to wonder if nostalgia for the end of a distant era can reflect any light back on the end of one still present? Or has Plainview eaten that as well?”

    “I always liked to hear about the oldtimers. Never missed a chance to do so. You can’t help but compare yourself gainst the oldtimers. Can’t help but wonder how they would’ve operated these times.”

    On the other hand, in Cronenberg, especially in M. Butterfly and A History of Violence, the characters allow themselves to be fooled. by means of creating a new identity for themselves. That is, sure enough, an existencialist endeavor, contrary to the way Plainviewv is presented. However in all cases (being it in Cronenberg or There Will be Blood and No Country) the results are the same: they are all far less than a man. Ed Tom Bell (“age will flatten a man”) is often compared with Anton Chigurh by identical shots (their reflection on the TV, they both drink their milk -“What do we circulate? Lookin’ for a man who recently drunk milk”, after he himself drinks it). Doesn´t Set Brundle from The Fly become nothing but “an empty shell, a hollow man, a mask without a face, a collection of annoying tics and raging drives with no interiority behind it”?
    An insect who dreamt he was a man, and loved it?

  15. Day-Lewis does what he did in “Gangs of New York” already – impersonating a social condition, making the superimposition of role and character almsot materialize in front of the screen.

    (Didn’t like the very last moment of “There will be blood”, though – it didn’t escalate anything, it was no punchline, it was just what had to be expected from the title of the movie.)

  16. I’ve always been a bit iffy about Day-Lewis and how the mythology of his ‘technique’ forms such a part of his persona (like Deniro once did, until we realised he only had two facial expressions and as many hand movements), but when he’s good, boy is he good.

    Making an ’empty’ character real is incredibly difficult – an excellent example is Pacino as Michael Corleone, as we watch him become devoid of personality (or ‘unmask’ himself as being always like that) but somehow carry an epic.

  17. I absolutely agree w/ Wedge above: everytime I hear someone go on and on about how ‘revolutionary’ Day-Lewis is for his ‘method’ of staying in character on set, I start to chuckle and recall Laurence Olivier’s (apocryphal) quote: “It’s called *acting,* my dear boy.”

    But that doesn’t make his (non-?)acting in TWBB any less incredible.

  18. It’s odd that Day-Lewis is faulted for creating this kind of character in There Will be Blood, while Philip Seymour Hoffman is praised for essentially the same flat affect in MI3. After I saw MI3, I had a conversation with a fellow moviegoer concerning who was a scarier villian, Hoffman in MI3 or Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs. We agreed that Hoffman’s character was scarier because he really was devoid of that spark, interested only in manipulating the matter and energy that is another human being for his own gain, while Lecter was expressive by comparison and sought out and enjoyed humanity and art(according to his own culinary or hedonistic tastes). Lecter ate brains, but he was no zombie.

  19. I am surprised that you think that Day Lewis’s perfromance is ‘wrongly’ compared to John Huston’s in ‘Chinatown’ when they are so obviously similar. I certainly don’t think that Huston allowed us to see the underlying humanity of Noah Cross any more than DDL did Plainview. Cross tells Giddes that he does what he does ‘for the future’: not *his* future. And, like Plainview, that involves the ownership of a child. They are both monsters.
    But when I say ownership, perhaps *possession* is a better term, because ‘There Will Be Blood’ reminds me of no other film so much as it does ‘The Exorcist’, not least of all in that opening scene of excavation, where something ancient and evil is uncovered, but only because it is time for it to be uncovered. Think of the second accident that Plainview experiences/receives: he looks at something off camera. And not fleetingly. He *beholds* something: holds it in Plain View. For me, this is the core of that film. It is about *possession* – to possess/ to be possessed by.
    Think of Ely too and the moment when he is in the church as it is being built around him, when he rehearses his communion with spirits: that is, when he pretends to have the ability to let God come through him, to be possessed. He is a liar and we always knowit, just as Plainview, who has *really* seen something knows it. Which is why at the awful conclusion Plainview feels so justified in getting his revenge. This is an American horror tale in the style of, not Lovecraft, but more Ambrose Bierce or even Shirley Jackson.
    So with this in mind, just who is speaking when Plainview says ‘I am Finished’ after he’s killed that truculent priest?

  20. I agree with you about DDL’s performance, but the great weakness of the film is that it falls back on psychology. I’m not sure how you can get around this. The film is part of PTA’s obsession with the wounded American ego from the perspective of familialism. And Plainview who seemed to be something more interesting turns out to be just another version of Scorsese’s lazy Howard Hughes. The worst scene is the scene before last in which he humiliates his grown son. PTA wants to show us that things GET to Plainview–that the affect has a core. (Rosebud is a much more ambiguous signifier–more maguffin than sign of lost childhood.) Far more interesting in TWBB are the fake families–the son who emerged from nowhere, the twin brother, the fake brother… suggesting, as I think you are, that new kind of links need to be forged when “blood” has lost it’s organic ability to connect.

    But the film is not satisfied with that.
    I don’t think you can view Plainview as pure embodiment of capitalism, but even if you could, this doesn’t seem to me to be a very interesting idea either. The film and these interpretations hit on some interesting symptoms of exhaustion, but seem to bring us back to familiar territory.

  21. Morris has hit the nail on the head. This film is just another PTA expedition into American Dream “victimhood.” Day Lewis does exactly what he is supposed to do in such a thing – be hollow, be angry, be ugly. None of PTA’s films, just like Tarantino’s, have any emotional authenticity. Or power for that matter. That’s what makes them safe for the audience.

  22. It struck me as a very shallow socialist cartoon: angry rich man with no heart, angry preacher with no substance.

    Toss lightly, add oil, vinegar, and serve slightly chilling.

    Boring beyond belief. But it doesn’t surprise me that the Hollywood crowd fell for this, and even found it delicious.

  23. I saw it yesterday partially as a result of your post. I try to keep up.

    Some of the comments here are very insightful. Yesterday I couldn’t understand how anybody would like the film. But then I think if you do think of capital as being embodied by the DDL character you can understand his rages. He only thinks of everything economically.

    But it seems too that he’s really trying to be a family man. There is the weird love scene where the boy and he are all oily together and DDL is wrestling with having to let him go. He does make sure that the boy is well-cared for, and that his room is large, and he does bother to get him a tutor.

    The internal motivations are probably better spelled-out in the novel. Films have to take thirty hours or more down to two, and a lot is cut in the process.

    I couldn’t understand where the film was supposed to have to taken place. I thought it was Oklahoma, but then the pipeline appears to go all the way to the Pacific Ocean.

    Was the geography a bit scrambled, or did I miss something?

    The easy caricature of religion and the rich didn’t leave much else. I assume that in the book reason and the working class were going to build a new world, since the the rich and the religious had built fraudulent and inauthentic worlds.

    And the link between blood and oil was an obvious reference to Iraq for the film makers.

    And also something to lure in customers.

    Not many people would go to see a film if it was entitled, Sorry, There Won’t Be Any Blood in this Picture.

  24. I was just taking in the varied opinions on your little blog here. and all of you seem to make relevant points… and in a sense i believe it is what makes the film solid. The comments of Day-Lewis’ acting could really go etiher way, i believe it really depends on the acting you prefer, dictating a particular emotion intentionally or allowing the scene to dictate the emotion more improvisationally. My thinking is that watching this movie twice is necessary, as another poster on this page said, you try and keep hope for there to be more behind the man, but after seeing the ending and putting the whole film in retrospect watch Day-Lewis as if he were the cold calculating face of capitalism and draw a larger statement from the film as a whole, and then decide if he “acted appropriately (bad pun intended).

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