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. â€˜Heâ€™ 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.