Joaquin Phoenix, the greatest actor of his generation?
American actor at the height of his fame.
Joaquin Phoenix has had a very busy year. After the surprising films, You Were Never Really Here and
Mary Magdalene, the American actor is once again coming to our screens with The Sisters Brothers, a magnificent western by Jacques Audiard. He plays a hitman, Charlie Sisters, who, with his brother, Eli (John C. Reilly), is chasing a gold prospector across the country. This could be a defining role for this actor…and possible Oscar nomination?
an actor who has cultivated an image of relative Hollywood hermitude, Joaquin Phoenix has been awfully visible lately, fidgeting uncomfortably in a spotlight that nonetheless keeps landing on him. This week, his starring role in Gus van Sant’s Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot hits cinemas in the US – and depending on where you are in the world, it’s his third major release of 2018 so far.
2. In the UK, the March cinema schedule gave us a particularly disconcerting Phoenix double-whammy. One week, he was a taciturn, tortured assassin exacting grievous violence on toxic men in Lynne Ramsay’s brutal stunner You Were Never Really Here. The next, he was literally Jesus Christ – still taciturn, definitely still tortured, but ostensibly a more benevolent presence – in Garth Davis’s prettily soporific religious drama Mary Magdalene. The performances may have had more in common than they would in the hands of most other actors – you’ve never seen the son of God quite this blearily emo – but the ideological whiplash between the projects was still striking.
3. Phoenix isn’t done for the year, either: this autumn, we’ll see his starring role in the darkly comic gold rush western The Sisters Brothers, the first English-language film by the esteemed French auteur Jacques Audiard. By any measure, that’s a robust quartet of projects, at least in terms of prestige and intent.
4. Phoenix would have to be pretty spectacular in the Audiard film to supplant You Were Never Really Here as the high point of not only Phoenix’s year, but just about any actor’s: as Joe, the silent-storm hitman concealing tidal waves of trauma beneath a grizzled, ungiving exterior, he brought soresouled complexity, psychic pain and a stoic streak of gallows humour to what would otherwise be a familiar noir type. It’s a characterisation that ranks with his raddled, feckless sociopath Freddie Quell from Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master as perhaps the richest of his career so far, and it justly won him best actor at Cannes last year; by rights, it should net him a fourth Oscar nomination.
DARKENING THE EDGES
5. Now in his 40s, the actor has long shown a knack for crinkling and darkening the edges of even the most straight-and-narrow films, since well before he gave us cinema’s scuzziest Jesus. We saw it as early as 1989, in Ron Howard’s bright family dramedy Parenthood, in which the 14-year-old Phoenix (then still going by the Christian name Leaf) quietly disrupted the sitcom tone of proceedings with his portrait of a withdrawn, nascently porn-fixated adolescent. Eleven years later, he was a thrillingly strange, sinuous spanner in the robust Hollywood works of Gladiator; it was a performance inspired and unsettling enough to earn him his first Oscar nomination.
6. It was the performance that essentially made Phoenix – then 26 and skew-whiff sexy – a star. Yet aside from a loopy pair of M Night Shyamalan projects and the handsome, trophy-chasing biopic duty of Walk the Line, he rarely acted accordingly. Forgoing studio cinema, he opted for a mixed bag of indies and developed a solemn, burnished collaboration with the Cannes-beloved, 1970s-inspired American auteur James Gray, culminating in a bittersweet romance, Two Lovers, that was a virtual paean to his anxious, antiHollywood-leading-man qualities.
7. That, of course, was the lead-up to I’m Still Here, the ambitious mockumentary stunt that for too long had the world convinced Phoenix was either a buffoon or a critically damaged egomaniac, and over as an actor either way. The convenient narrative would have had critics declaring Phoenix’s self-parody as his crowning glory, if not for the unexpected upshot on the other side – as Phoenix rebounded from the lark with the most disciplined, detailed, straight-up acting of his career in TheMaster.
8. Since that watershed, there’s been no fooling about, even when the projects have been playful: Anderson’s Inherent Vice may have been a shaggydog stoner odyssey, but Phoenix’s spaced-sad delivery in it was perfectly studied. His delicate, nebbishy romantic ache in Spike Jonze’s Her was an unexpected, empathetic twist on his talents, while his Gray collaboration hit an operatic peak with his 1920s Ellis Island pimp in The Immigrant.
9. There have been missteps, albeit not thoughtless ones. He was saddled with one of the rotten modern- era Woody Allen scripts in Irrational Man, while as interesting a pick as he is to play Jesus, he seems more glazed than intense in the beige, tasteful surroundings of Mary Magdalene. But if these are the blurry spots in Phoenix’s filmography as he heads into his middle age, he’s doing well — he’s even toying with the mainstream again, with his casting as the Joker in an upcoming origin story. With Daniel Day-Lewis supposedly retired and the consensus title of Greatest Working Actor up for grabs, Phoenix’s latter-day CV makes as good a case as any.