Part 3

The Classics You Should Have Seen By Now

by PopMatters Staff

28 July 2009


Robert De Niro and more

Daniel Day-Lewis There Will be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007)

There Will Be Blood opens with Daniel Plainview toiling his way from solitary prospector to successful oilman in 15 minutes of riveting wordless poetry (accompanied by a soaring Jonny Greenwood score). Day-Lewis wields his gangly but powerful frame like a pick-axe, chipping through rock and soil and sweat and grime and pain and tragedy to gain a measure of wealth and success that he will cling to and expand upon. These tough origins give him a chip on his shoulder the size of an oil derrick. Plainview feels that he has earned respect and power in his sphere; not only does he refuse to lose sight of that, but he refuses to forgive those who do. Day-Lewis’ driven, paranoid giant of a man makes Charles Foster Kane look like Gandhi in comparison. “I don’t like to explain myself,” the admitted misanthrope tells his apparent half-brother Henry (Kevin J. O’Connor); the droop of Day-Lewis’ mouth as he realizes Henry’s betrayal (and later, his son’s desire for independence) accompanies the confirmation of his low opinion of humanity. Those who veer too closely to his inner fire inevitably get burned, none more so than charismatic preacher Eli Sunday (Paul Dano). All of the scenes between Plainview and Eli crackle with fervor and menace, but the final two are all-time classics. Whether he’s mocking righteous judgment or judging with righteous mockery, Day-Lewis laughs in the face of Eli and of God. Divine justice is a cosmic joke to Daniel Plainview, and he drinks its milkshake. Ross Langager

James Dean Rebel Without a Cause (Nicholas Ray, 1955)

“You’re tearing me apart!” I’ve heard that wail a hundred times, and it still gets me even just thinking about it. But what can be said about James Dean’s performance as Jim Stark that hasn’t been said so many times before? It’s intense, powerful, and revelatory. It’s defining as far as representation of young people in film. Dean set the tone for generations to come, and only a handful of actors have, for me, even nearly matched his passion, his guts or his fearless vulnerability. Dean’s Method performance here was raw; he was smart, he was good. He paved the way for Sean Penn in At Close Range, Matt Dillon in The Outsiders, and River Phoenix in Running on Empty—bold actors who, while young, carry themselves in such a Dean-like way on screen that in scenes involving confrontations with adults, they appear wiser, stronger, more emotionally present than their elders. Maybe it was the red jacket as much as the wailing, that made Dean stand out against Ray’s sometimes stark, black backgrounds. He wore his heart on his sleeve and made you love his character, despite of all of his youthful bluster. You sat up, you listened. You couldn’t look away. Nikki Tranter

Robert De Niro Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976)

What is perhaps most disturbing about the character of Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver is the ease in which Bickle exists in the world and the ease with which we accept and believe in his existence. This is owed entirely to the raw strength of De Niro’s performance: a complex high-wire balancing act in which De Niro doesn’t choose to play Bickle as an all-knowing, completely detached loner or as an evil psychopath. Instead, the actor infuses Bickle with notes of fundamental naivety and haplessness. He is eager and willing to involve himself in society, but lacks the social skills that would enable him to assimilate. He’s frustrated and desperate to act out, which is what he does, undertaking a brutal vigilante mission to cleanse New York City of its “scum”.

His facial expressions and soft manner of speaking suggest a certain measure of innocence. We look at Bickle and feel sorry for him and somehow, despite our separation from his world, nevertheless understand his palpable rage (accentuated by De Niro’s vocal inflections, as are his expressions of confusion, frustration and hatred). He seems appropriate for the world he’s in and the world he’s experienced before (Vietnam), as if he is a logical result or symptom of the disease of violence, inhumanity and immorality that he has experienced and which still surrounds him. What is even more interesting is the degree to which De Niro manages to disappear into this role—a skill he has honed in Scorsese’s employ. When I was watching the film again recently, I found myself believing in this character, without reservation, and forgetting that I was watching De Niro—one of the most distinct and recognizable actors in the world—perform. De Niro seems natural in this brutal world, as if he’s transformed both mind and body into Bickle, as if the method has made him mad and he loves it. James R. Fleming

Robert Duvall The Apostle (Robert Duvall, 1997)

Rural Texan “Sonny” Dewey (Duvall) and wife Jessie (Farrah Fawcett) share a mortgage and kids, but Jessie has been dallying with Minister Horace (Todd Miller) and coveting the Dewey’s most prized possession—their church. After assaulting Horace with a bat mid-softball game, leaving him comatose, Sonny goes on the lam, high-tailing his way out of town on the first outward-bound local bus. He changes his name to E.F., baptizes himself as the “Apostle” and moves into the black community of Bayou Boutte, Louisiana and becomes a mechanic and street-preacher and remodels a church in a last-ditch attempt at garnering a newfound personal salvation and peace. The townspeople are puzzled by his arrival and ask, “What kind of preacher are you?” E.F. answers each query with charming confidence. “You know it, I can do it,” E.F. responds. “I got a little bit of everything in me. And so he does: dancing in ecstasy filled with the holy spirit, exploding into rage, cradling babes, romancing ladies and speaking in spirited tongues, Sonny virtually glistens, commanding a sacred pilgrimage that could bring even the strictest atheist to his disbelieving knees. Duvall wrote, directed and financed the film, requiring 14 years of unflinching faith mirrored in his modern, filled-with fire-and-brimstone performance. Lisa Torem

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