Daniel Day-Lewis earned his second of three Oscars as Daniel Plainview, the zealous oil tycoon at the center of “There Will Be Blood.” As an intensely committed Method actor, Day-Lewis studied Upton Sinclair’s novel “Oil!,” researched working conditions of turn-of-the-century miners, and perfected a fastidiously distinct drawl. He spent over a year preparing for the role.
Paul Dano, a 22-year-old indie actor, was originally cast by director Paul Thomas Anderson in a minor role. Two weeks into filming, the actor playing Eli Sunday, Daniel’s evangelical adversary, dropped out. (Allegedly, the actor was intimidated by his scene partner’s immersive methods.) In desperation, Anderson turned to Dano and offered him the part on a Thursday. He began the following Monday.
Dano’s performance in “There Will Be Blood” does not look like the result of only four days of work. Despite Day-Lewis’ significant head start, Dano keeps up with his co-star throughout the epic marathon that is this film, giving a visceral, surprising performance. It is thanks to both these men’s acting that the film sticks so stubbornly in one’s memory. Daniel Plainview’s meta-filmic final line—“I’m finished!”—is declared matter-of-factly by Day-Lewis, as if he has just completed some staggering feat. And he has. Day-Lewis puts on the kind of mind-bogglingly immersive show we’ve come to expect from him, a master class in vocal and physical transformation. More surprising, however, is the idea that the mute kid from “Little Miss Sunshine” could go toe-to-toe with such a terrifyingly Brando-esque figure.
As in that film, Dano here is repression incarnate—this time sporting an impressively unflattering haircut. Like some of film’s best supporting villains, he is unafraid to embrace the grotesque, to actually use un-likability as a tool in his impressively stocked tool kit. A preacher at the Church of the Third Revelation, the solemn, effeminate Eli Sunday stands literally and ideologically in the alpha male’s way, decrying Daniel’s greed with feverish enthusiasm. It’s a greed Eli seems to be familiar with, as Dano’s unsettling portrayal suggests. The nod Eli gives when he realizes oil has brought Daniel to his family’s door is spine-tinglingly good. From then on, Dano and Day-Lewis spend whole chunks of the movie leveling sidelong glares at each other, each more chilling than the next. There will be blood indeed.
In the final scene, it isn’t shocking to discover Eli has fallen on hard times and succumbed to sin, because every moment of Dano’s performance up to that point feels sadistic. With all its stark landscapes and images of oil aflame, Paul Thomas Anderson’s world is a hellish one—and Eli Sunday may be its devil. After Daniel’s son is deafened, Eli visits Daniel to demand the payment owed to the church. As Daniel slaps him repeatedly, dragging and wrestling him into the mud, his shrieks seem to come not from this world. When he crawls across his father’s table like one possessed or frenziedly dodging bowling balls, Dano is almost operating within the horror genre. Anyone can juxtapose demonic behavior with the church and play into the cliché of the fraudulent preacher, but only this creepy actor can actually sweat hypocrisy. Hell hath no fury like Paul Dano’s smile.
Nowhere is this ferocious ugliness more apparent than during a lengthy shot in the middle of Eli’s sermon in which Dano banishes arthritis from an old woman’s hands. “Out, ghost!” he rasps, first seductive, then frantic, then positively deranged. The performance is, as Daniel (Plainview, but also perhaps Day-Lewis) aptly puts it, “One goddamn hell of a show.”
Jack Smart is a Brooklyn-based theater critic and arts writer who blogs at www.jacksmartreviews.com. Yes, Jack Smart is his real name.