Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Milkshakes and Oscars

The following column is reprinted from the March issue of Providence Monthly

By Scott Duhamel

It’s a little unsettling that the two best American movies of 2007 are equally square- jawed and hunkered down, two movies embedded in hardened soil and defoliated landscapes, unearthing the metaphorical till of a decidedly hardscrabble American panorama. Both There Will be Blood and No Country for Old Men (note the similarity of the titles, both easily appearing as story names in a Flannery O’Connor collection) utilize stolid templates, allowing only the slightest of visual flourishes to serve as occasional cinematic brushstrokes, both tales unfolding under a decidedly darkened atmosphere, and both achieving a quiet rapture through the neatly coiled dynamics of build-up and release.
What ultimately sets apart the two movies that are remarkably similar in theme, in mood, and in delivery is the outsized central performance of Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood . In No Country For Old Man, the Coen brothers refuse to divert the balance of power (or of the picture) from any of the three protagonists, a major portion of the film’s facileness relies on the ever shifting (and wholly impartial) focus on Josh Brolin’s seeker, Javier Bardeem's doer, and Tommy Lee Jones’s observer. Paul Thomas Anderson, on the other hand, gives his movie over wholly to Day-Lewis, who appears in virtually every scene, and, by the film’s end, his hardened visage is as much a part of the visual scheme as are the primitive oil derricks and freshly lumbered structures.
Ultimately No Country for Old Man is a tone poem for the lost American wilderness and the wild figures that inhabited it, and it is also as bleak and unhopeful and ghastly funny as a Sam Shepard play, with a finale that offers little beyond a chuckle and quick gasp of recognition that life, yup, goes on. There Will Be Blood is a rise and fall fable that drains itself of highs or lows, and forces us to peer deep inside the ever piercing eyes of it’s main figure, feebly hoping to ascertain a meaningful emotion. Day-Lewis’ bravura portrait of his acutely single-minded character, Daniel Plainview, packs the sort of imagination and shadings that only a few screen presences have ever been capable of, out-and-out acting icons like Brando, Olivier, or DeNiro. Somehow Day-Lewis (the odds on favorite for the Oscar) absolutely dominates the movie without even seeming to try, yet Anderson somehow gets judicious use out of handful of smaller performance such as Paul Dano’s Eli Sunday, Kevin J. O’Connor’s Henry, and Dillon Freasier’s ethereal H.W.
Anderson positions Day-Lewis’ Plainview as the epitome of the American success story, a go-getter who charms, cons, and bullies his way to the top and once there, finds himself isolated and alone. Conjuring up bits and pieces from the main figures of essential films like Citizen Kane, The Treasure of Sierra Madre, even Moby Dick, Day-Lewis delivers an audacious performance, carrying a wonderfully imaginative film on his jutting shoulders. Through most of the film, floating along on a stream of false gaiety, he is a man in motion, cutting through landscape, people, and sentences as if no one exists but him and his purposes, his bearing and diction prove that he is indeed a righteous American dreamer, mover and shaker. When the actor finally chooses to remain still, when the camera lights on his strangely daunted expression, the movie shudders with portentousness, and his self-disintegration, alongside the accompanying American chimera, is as powerfully conveyed as the steady burst of a gushing oil well. As far as Daniel Day Lewis goes—yes indeed, there will be Oscar.

Daniel Day at Play

My Beautiful Laundrette (1985). Day-Lewis burst on the scene as one half of a gay bi-racial couple in this British slice-of-life helmed by Stephen Frears. Unbeknownst to audiences, his Morrissey-like appearance and demeanor was solid proof of his chameleon-like attributes which become much more evident as his career flourishes

A Room With a View (1985). DDL book-ended his Laundrette role with a twitchy, effete, uptight version of British upper-class snobbery and impotence in this well made Merchant-Ivory movie version of E.M. Forster’s novel

The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988). American maverick Phil Kaufman (The Right Stuff) hit one out of the park with this European styled poltico-sexual sideways glance at Czechoslovakia in 1968, just prior to the Russian invasion. The romantic triangle formed by DDL, Lena Olin and Juilette Binoche is rightfully considered by many to be among the sexiest threesome to ever hit the bigscreen. With this one, DDL turned into an art school pin-up.

My Left Foot (1989). Working for the first time with Irish filmmaker Jim Sheridan, DDL’s spellbinding portrait of Irish cerebral palsy victim Christy Brown was the kind of acting tour de force that begs for awards. DDL received his share, and stories filtered off the set that he (like DeNiro, et al) was so fully committed to his method that he refused to get out of character on or off the set. A cult begins.

The Last of the Mohicans (1992). Teaming with Michael Mann in this mainstream adaptation of James Fenimore Cooper’s well loved book, DDL totally inhabits the iconic Hawkeye; mean, streamlined, child of nature, running and jumping through Mann’s brutal eye candy with a vengeance.

The Age Of Innocence. (1993). A vastly underrated turn from DDL in Marty Scorsese’ equally underrated filmic equivalent of Edith Wharton’s turn of the century depiction of manners and morality in New York. DDL takes the upper class twit mold from the Remains of the Day and goes deep inside, providing the movie with some of the subtlest
interior acting in recent years.

In the Name of the Father (1993). Hooking up again with Jim Sheridan, DDL is Gerry Conlon, a feckless Belfast boy falsely implicated in an IRA bombing and eventually imprisoned alongside his equally innocent father Pete Postlethwhaite). DDL’s presence chances the balance of the movie from a fight-for-justice to a tale of familial bonding and manful maturation.

The Crucible (1996). Yet another costume drama, a vivid reinterpretation of Arthur Miller’s well known drama scripted by the playwright himself, and DDL obligingly burns up the screen with smoldering eyes and the by-now expected internal intensity as John Proctor. For one, DDL is ably matched, by the peerless Joan Allen, as Elizabeth Proctor.

The Boxer
(1999) Furthering the DeNiro comparisons, DDL takes on the manly art as an Irish boxer (working again with Jim Sheridan) who’s IRA past keeps engulfing him. Little seen, but a gripping little drama, grim and gray, and yet another DDL version of a man trapped by circumstance.

The Gangs of New York (2002). DDL biggest, brashest, most domineering performance yet, and outside of DeNiro’s Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull the most captivating and operatic portrayal in all of Scorsese’s film work. Undeniably a spellbinding, knock ‘em dead outing, enough so, that upon it’s release I felt compelled to quickly head back for a second movie house viewing, just to focus on DDL’s fully realized and amazingly articulated showboating.

The Ballad of Jack and Rose (2005). Quirky indie film directed by DDL’s wife Rebecca Miller has DDL as a hippie Scotsman with a heart condition and a too-close-for-comfort relationship with his home schooled daughter (Camilla Belle). A smart little film with a deceptively quiet showing from DDL.

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