I'm not sure Daniel Day-Lewis' performance in There Will Be Blood represents the best acting of 2007 (as various critics' groups have declared), but it certainly represents the most acting of the past year.
Certainly, Day-Lewis is one of our finest thespians, as witnessed by his Oscar-winning turn in My Left Foot and his more subtle (and woefully underrated) work in both The Last of the Mohicans and The Age of Innocence. But his performance here as Daniel Plainview, a prospector who strikes it rich in turn-of-the-century California, basically comes across as Bill the Butcher (his character in Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York) turned up a couple of notches. It's an entertaining dervish of a performance, to be sure, but as I watched him howl and growl and carry on, I was reminded of Rod Steiger during the hammy stage of his career -- not exactly the most pleasant of memories as far as cinematic visions are concerned.
Then again, Day-Lewis' oversized turn is right in line with Paul Thomas Anderson's oversized ambitions in creating a modern-day masterpiece, a movie so audacious that it flagrantly apes Citizen Kane during its final half-hour and recalls The Treasure of the Sierra Madre at regular intervals. That so many critics are indeed calling this an instant classic isn't surprising, but if the No Country for Old Men vs. There Will Be Blood grudge match continues to gain traction (think also Beatles vs. Rolling Stones, Star Wars vs. Lord of the Rings, and boxers vs. briefs), then I'm afraid I'll have to pledge my allegiance to the Coen Brothers' equally brutal, equally risky but ultimately more satisfying drama. Anderson's latest film isn't even up to the standards of what I consider his real masterpiece, the dizzying, dazzling Boogie Nights, though there's enough here to please hardcore cineastes as well as more adventurous moviegoers.
Based on Upton Sinclair's novel Oil! the movie opens with an excellent 12-minute sequence with no dialogue -- perhaps a nod to Erich von Stroheim's silent milestone, Greed, also about the destructive power of accumulated wealth? During this sequence, we're introduced to Plainview, a determined prospector who over time strikes it rich and becomes one of the nation's most powerful oilmen. Plainview has an adopted son in young H.W. (Dillon Freasier), who ends up going deaf after sitting next to an oil rig that explodes as it brings up black riches from beneath the surface. Plainview tries to be an acceptable parent to the boy, but he's hardly a social creature, intolerant of those around him and not one to extend trust or affection easily. His greatest adversary as he tries to milk the land dry is Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), an unctuous preacher who's as much the conniving showman as Daniel Plainview.
There Will Be Blood, therefore, attempts to work on two plateaus: a story about the feud between Plainview and Eli that doubles as the battle between bald capitalism and insincere spirituality (in that respect, the movie could be set today), and a more personal tale involving Plainview and his adopted boy. That the former plotline is more interesting than the latter throws the film off balance, a flaw accentuated by the fact that no attempt to understand or explain Plainview leaves the film with a hollow center that separates it from the likes of Citizen Kane and Sierra Madre (wherein we still cared about their protagonists even after they took leave of their senses).
Still, the picture is a beauty to behold (Oscar nods for technical achievements should breed like rabbits), and there are individual sequences so staggering that a second viewing will hardly be a chore. But those planning to check it out should be sure to bring an umbrella, Rocky Horror Picture Show-style, just in case Day-Lewis' juicy lip-smacking manages to break through that fourth wall.
HOW INTERESTING that 2007 produced two pictures about Alzheimer's that approached the subject from diametrically opposite points. (It's also interesting that these two movies, both involving caregivers, were written and directed by women, usually deemed the primary caregivers in our society.) Sarah Polley's Away From Her was about a man who dearly loved his wife and was devastated as the disease created an unbreachable gap between them. Tamara Jenkins' The Savages (finally reaching town) is about siblings who dislike their dad and are upset that circumstances dictate they be responsible for his well-being.
Away From Her was a straightforward drama, but The Savages is a black comedy that frequently goes down like the most bitter coffee imaginable. That edge places us at a greater distance from its protagonists than Away From Her, which embraced us with its warmth and more open displays of empathy. The Savages produces an emotional reaction as well, but audiences have to work harder at feeling it by embracing its nakedly flawed characters at their most damaged and during their most prickly moments.