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Written by Timothy Sexton
Daniel Day-Lewis took home a much-deserved second Oscar for Best Actor for what is well on its way toward becoming one of those iconic performances that says something profound about the American character. All the more impressive, consider the actor himself is profoundly Irish. Channeling the spirit of The Maltese Falcon director John Huston to give Plainview his voice, Day-Lewis builds from that vocalization which is utterly unique in his canon inward to delineate a character that time will inevitably be placed alongside such legendary fictional personages as Charles Foster Kane and Michael Corleone as one of the definitive cinematic representations of that most idiosyncratic of human beings: The American.
Paul and Eli Sunday were not originally intended to be identical twins, merely fraternal siblings. Two actors had been cast with Dano in the significantly smaller role of Paul, the first of the Sunday family with whom Daniel Plainview comes into contact. After shooting his first scene as Paul, however, director Paul Thomas Anderson made the fateful decision to jettison the actor who was to play Eli and cast Dano as both brothers. The fate turned out to be providential as Dano—despite having only about a week to prepare for the vital role of Eli—turned in a standout performance in which he manages to not just avoid being blown off the screen in his scenes with a Day-Lewis playing at the top of her considerable game, but more than holds his own.
The third character utterly essential to the narrative of There Will be Blood is the adopted young son of Daniel Plainview. The role demanded of the child actor cast to play him a certain unspoken and mysterious sense of gravity more appropriate to an adult than a child. Possibly because he planned to direct the actor playing H.W. more like an adult than a typical movie kid, director Anderson cast the utterly inexperienced Dillon Freasier after a series of unproductive auditions by Hollywood child actors. As with his Dano gambit, this decision ultimately paid off like a gushing oil derrick surrounding by dry wells. Unfortunately for movie lovers, There Will be Blood remained Dillon’s one and only movie role as of 2016 with no potential for his return looming. Should this remain the case, Feasier will join that very exclusive list of those actors who appeared in only one movie yet gave a performance of the level that most actors spend a career hoping to equal.
Kevin J. O'Connor
The fine and versatile character actor Kevin J. O’Connor has a face that engenders distrust. From the moment Henry shows up and announces that he is Daniel Plainview’s mysterious half-brother he instills a sense of brooding suspicion in not just Daniel, but the audience as well. And yet, because he is such a solid actor, O’Connor uses the peculiarities of his facial construction to cement the rather hangdog personality he exudes as a way of instilling a thin layer of positive doubt beneath that veneer of negative doubt. The result is that when all doubt is removed about Henry, the audience has been fully prepared to accept it either way it turns out.
One might well quibble with the director for bothering to cast the amazingly versatile Ciarán Hinds as Daniel Plainview’s right-hand man and then giving him what seems like only about a dozen words to speak throughout the entire movie when you consider that Hinds has such a resonant voice. But, then again, you can’t have two Irish actors sharing the same scene and speaking in resonant American tones, so one can see the wisdom of gaining Hinds’ silent acting techniques at the expense of his vocal acting talent.
As patriarch of the Sunday clan, the role of Abel Sunday called for an actor primarily capable of investing his time on screen with the ability to project a personality capable of behavior conducted off-screen. Paul Sunday moves in and out of the film quite quickly with the notable undercurrent of Oedipal struggles. Eli Sunday is explicitly revealed to be contemptuous of his father. Then there is the powerful scene where Daniel indirectly threatens Abel Sunday after his H.W. reveals that the man sometimes hits his young daughter with whom H.W. has grown close and will eventually marry. David Willis masterfully underplays all his scenes to deliver the kind of man who likely carries around many more secrets than even those that are disclosed.
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