The cameras found Daniel Day-Lewis only three times during January’s Golden Globes broadcast. His head shaved and wearing a ceremonial expression of both discomfort and earnestness, the man who is arguably among the highest-regarded actors of this century couldn’t quite convince us that he wanted to be at the ceremony. Perhaps he would rather be enjoying a Thoreau-like solitude, hewing down trees to make clogs. These strange public glimpses of Day-Lewis occur every three or five years of late, seemingly whenever he steps into a new role and is subsequently nominated for acting awards. The glimpses are odd because, for one, the legendarily immersed actor offers almost no public face and, therefore, doesn’t seem like he belongs in a ballroom surrounded by celebrities and members of the media. Seeing him like this, out of character, a creeping rhetorical question comes to mind: Is that unsuspecting, pale fellow really Daniel Day-Lewis?
Beyond his many roles of old-world masculinity, Day-Lewis’ filmography seems to resist through lines. His body of work travels widely through centuries and across continents. Each character seems to live fully and then perish before he takes on the next. But look closely and Day-Lewis betrays a penchant for playing experts. From William Cutting’s throwing blades (Gangs of New York, 2002) to Daniel Plainview’s surveying theodolite (There Will Be Blood, 2007) to Christy Brown’s paintbrushes (My Left Foot, 1989) to Abe Lincoln’s cerebral library of anecdotes (Spielberg’s Lincoln, 2012), exhaustive craft is the adhesive that binds Lewis’ repertoire both on and off the screen. The famous feats of embodiment he undergoes — take your pick: learning to fight at a near-professional level for The Boxer; nearly succumbing to pneumonia while filming Gangs of New York in only period-appropriate attire; living as a real-life woodsman while readying for The Last of the Mohicans — may prevent real-life persona from peeking through roles, but it does not free him of the transformation process itself. That is; if Daniel Day-Lewis has a tell, it’s tactile. He likes to show his work. It’s in every physical tool he wields like an authority and every well-studied movement that arises from his otherwise stark stillness before the camera.
Indeed, his role choices may be the only discernible vanity Day-Lewis possesses. It takes a certain ego to routinely play masters. For a counterfactual, would he be thought of as such a grand performer if he played the occasional everyman or supporting character? On some level, audiences and awards bodies must perceive acting greatness because his characters so often propagate greatness on a narrative level. If most everyone infers Tom Hanks is a decent man because he plays decent men, we can imagine off-duty Day-Lewis training racehorses or pouring his soul into sonnets or juggling sticks of dynamite, but never spending a Saturday in front of the TV (even though he apparently loves the Discovery Channel’s Naked and Afraid). Still, the men he plays are only great in their ambitions, not so in their daily lives. They are quite often driven to their spiritual or literal demises by their crafts.
It’s through that pyrrhic sense of mastery that Phantom Thread both apprehends and reveals Day-Lewis more effectively than any other film to his name. That’s perhaps because, to hear Paul Thomas Anderson tell it, his star practically co-wrote their second film together, refining the script and even choosing the protagonist’s hilarious, yet dignified name, Reynolds Woodcock. Indeed, many of Day-Lewis’ trademark qualities are on display in what the actor has said will be his last film. It’s a period piece about a solitary tradesman. Precision is paramount. Obsession reigns but within an ever-so-neat spectrum of mannerisms. Yes, Phantom Thread initially looks to be another Day-Lewis film about actualization through work, yet this film purports to know something about dogged craft that his other films not only ignore but perhaps refuse to believe: it’s not enough.
In the eighth film from Anderson, now up for six Oscars, including for Best Actor, Day-Lewis plays an acclaimed dressmaker. Set mostly in 50s-era London, the story hinges on the fretful, carping Reynolds Woodcock falling in love during a quiet weekend in the country. There, he encounters Alma, a waitress three decades his junior, played with unceasing eye contact and barely perceptible smiles by Vicky Krieps. Reynolds and Alma’s meet-cute appears incidental. She demonstrates a talented food server’s care by recalling his absurdly ornate, high-caloric order from memory. But we know from the jump that the younger woman marks the latest in a pattern of Reynolds’ relationships.
His first date with Alma evolves into more of an audition. After dinner, he whisks her to his country home and takes her measurements for a dress, literalizing the process of getting to know a lover via his métier. But we know even more from the film’s opening: he’s attracted to young muses, but once he closes off from them, his sister Cyril (another lifelong bachelor, played by Lesley Manville) dismisses the women from their shared London home like last season’s styles that have fallen sharply out of fashion. Truly, the only thing that keeps Reynolds from coming off as an emotionally abusive, exploitative lothario is that sexuality is hardly broached by this character or this film. Why Reynolds grows distant toward Alma after she’s moved in with him is left open to interpretation. He’s distracted by his work, but more likely, he intends for Alma to temporarily enliven his work. She represents some fleeting improvisation in his many fastidious processes, from the artistic to the domestic.
To that end, the first we see of Reynolds is him lathering shaving cream onto his chin with such fuss it becomes a joke told through Anderson’s deceptively funny camera lens. If the lather takes minutes, actually shaving could take hours. Further, the virtuoso tailor’s seamstresses dress in smocks that resemble white lab coats, as though creating wedding gowns was akin to working on the Manhattan Project. Even more, countless pivotal scenes unfold with Reynolds peering over the lip of his sketchpad. Never far from his tools, Day-Lewis’ self-control as a performer emanates through every moment of the film’s first and second acts. While the 60-year-old is as embedded and fascinating to watch as he’s ever been in Phantom Thread, a fitting swan song crescendos beneath Jonny Greenwood’s elliptical score.
Day-Lewis’ final outing (at least for now) addresses questions that audiences, and more interestingly characters, in his films have been posing for years. In 1997’s The Boxer, for example, Day-Lewis fights with a kind of senseless, stoic, hauntingly real violence almost no boxing movie is sober enough to portray. Freshly out of jail to begin the story, Belfast pugilist Danny Flynn (Day-Lewis) endures a needless beating in an exhibition match. Bloodied and bruised before the IRA faithful, Flynn prompts the crime boss who landed him behind bars a decade before, Harry (Gerard McSorley), to interrogate the display.
Harry: What was that about, scrapper?
Danny: What do you mean?
Harry: Those were powerful emotions you stirred up tonight. What are you up to?
Danny: It’s just boxing.
Harry: It’s not just boxing, Danny. It’s a fucking statement. You damn near got your head knocked off. Now, what was that about?
Though few would argue with the results, audiences have looked at Day-Lewis’ method acting for 30 years and wondered something similar. What is behind this commitment? How long can it be sustained? Day-Lewis always seems to respond with some version of “it’s just acting”. Even when discussing his life’s work with a bit more personality, he makes his staying in character sound more whimsical than it ever appears on screen: “I suppose I have a highly developed capacity for self-delusion, so it’s no problem for me to believe that I’m somebody else.”
Phantom Thread suggests the process of building oneself into Reynolds Woodcock is actually more revealing than it seems, that it leaves a trail of eccentricities that must be shattered and combed through to find what’s real. The same could be said of building oneself into Daniel Day-Lewis. He possesses a galaxy of skills and modes and accents, all agonizingly attained if we believe the onset tales, that when you pull back you see a handsome, tense civilian sitting and wondering if they’ll call his name for an award. He’s the kid who plays pretend better than all the others and has made a career out of not compromising by playing men who never compromise. In its own subtle way, Phantom Thread seems to ask of Day-Lewis’ oeuvre, Is this any way to live? Or, Is this any way to die? These questions surprisingly make a sought-after fashion designer who lives with his ice queen of a sister and has a strong distaste for vegetables cooked in butter Day-Lewis’ most relatable character ever. Through its hyperbolic central relationship, the movie nudges its audience to look at themselves and to question the authenticity of a man who shrouds his vulnerability in unstoppable handiwork.
For Reynolds and Alma to remain a couple, the ingenue must finally, forcibly deprive her counterpart of his craft and all that comes with it. Without spoiling too much, she must render him physically unable to work, strip him of fineries, disrobe an ego to find the base, primal needs of a child hiding underneath. What’s more, Reynolds eventually admits he likes this humbling, that there is human truth in his fragility, in his biology, in his helplessness. But the honesty doesn’t come easy. In a dinner scene that marks the movie’s apex of humor and banter, Reynolds tries to bait Alma into naming the discontent she feels in their living together. “What precisely is the nature of my game?” he chides her, daring his lover to be as specific as possible, increasing the chances she’ll answer incorrectly. His taste and wit have become a trap, and Lewis plays the passive aggression with a meerkat’s posture and expectancy. Alma responds with a loud groan and then some frustrated gibberish, gesturing all around the room at the vast constellation of Reynolds’ ego: his house, his food, his tailoring. Alma bickers with all the genuine anger of someone who, for one, has had their linguistic abilities rudely stretched beyond their capability, and secondly, refuses to play into her opponent’s hands by classifying problems instead of fighting them. A noise of disgust is a more honest way to argue.
Many fine actors have dueled Day-Lewis over the years — Paul Dano (There Will Be Blood) and Emily Watson (The Boxer) come to mind as those who met him on his echelon, gripping scene after gripping scene — but on a meta-textual level, Kreips makes for his ablest volleying partner to date. Alma won’t play the artist’s specific game by his rules, nor will Kreips try to out-Day-Lewis, her scene partner. Instead of returning his prickly serves, Krieps keeps discarding the metaphorical ball into the bushes, glaring, flustered, seemingly challenging Day-Lewis to come out from behind his ornate words and just sit with her.
Such scenes make for entertaining fireworks in a troubled love story, but Phantom Thread evolves more into a deranged handbook for how people in relationships threaten and deconstruct each other, then survive and mature. The film grows less and less curious about Woodcock’s sheer abilities as it goes. Those well-publicized skills Day-Lewis obtained for this role, sewing gowns on his own and studying with professional tailors, fade into the background. There’s no climactic scene in which Alma encourages Reynolds to finally design his greatest-ever dress. In fact, the most pressurized scene of actual dressmaking occurs with Reynolds entirely absent. It’s Alma, Cyril, and the crew of technicians that deliver a gown when everything is on the line.
Phantom Thread asks Day-Lewis to lay down his weapons or playthings (depending how you view them) in a way his most acclaimed roles never have. It shows him tongue-tied, infirmed, creatively blocked and challenged to accept that something as ordinary as a relationship might be more useful than total expertise. The relationships between the characters and the actors mirror each other once again in how Phantom Thread visually humbles the renowned actor. Reynolds and Alma’s relationship begins with staging very familiar to Day-Lewis’ canon: him seated in a closeup, enrapturing younger, less cunning characters with anecdotes and credos. It’s a less menacing version of exactly how “The Butcher” talks to Amsterdam Vallon and Daniel Plainview speaks to his long-lost “brother”. But soon, the film removes Reynolds (and Day-Lewis) from the friendly confines of parlors and drawing rooms. By the time Reynolds desperately pursues Alma to a New Year’s Eve party, we can observe just how much cloistering has helped create Reynolds’ personal myth and Day-Lewis’ own onscreen prestige. The actor is a master within intimate settings, intimacy in which he can educate, retort and dominate. In the context of this New Year’s scene’s drunken countdown to midnight, he looks like an old man lost in a sea of youth. He looks like the least comfortable guest at a Hollywood gala.
If we listen to the man himself, it’s a curious task matching Day-Lewis’ explanations about the sadness that overcame him while making Phantom Thread with the film itself.
“Before making the film, I didn’t know I was going to stop acting,” Day-Lewis said in an interview with W Magazine. “I do know that Paul [Thomas Anderson] and I laughed a lot before we made the movie. And then we stopped laughing because we were both overwhelmed by a sense of sadness. That took us by surprise: We didn’t realize what we had given birth to. It was hard to live with. And still is.”
The intense melancholy the actor describes doesn’t jibe with the final product, which radiates with a hard-won, if morbid warmth. So what is it, ultimately, about Reynolds Woodcock that’s too much for Day-Lewis to feel content in continuing his career? Is it the character’s dismissiveness? Was living so deeply inside Reynolds’ insensitivity crippling for a professional emoter? Could it be that Phantom Thread portrays art as too ephemeral to bear, as a matter of literal fashion when it’s love that lasts?
Above all, there’s a heartfelt recantation here for those who’ve decided to live through work, to hide inside costumes, to create characters who guard their weakness. That kind of life, Reynolds begrudgingly admits late in the film, is the path to a “sour heart”. In gorgeous irony, the actor whose most celebrated skill is the exhaustive process of disappearance bids farewell with a quiet masterwork about being truly seen.