Actor In Focus: Joaquin Phoenix

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For my money, Joaquin Phoenix is one the greatest and most underrated actors of his generation. He’s also one of the most consistent – he hasn’t been in a bad movie since 2007, and several of them are genuine masterpieces.

Phoenix doesn’t exactly disappear into his roles, but he’s a strikingly accomplished mannerist, which means that he’s able to inflict every small gesture and fluctuation in voice tone with a lived-in specificity that seems to be rooted in a complex and fully realized inner life. Even when he takes on emotionally intense roles, he avoids bombast, expressing extreme feelings through minor suggestions and implications, which makes him perfect for playing (as he has in his very best films – Two Lovers, The Immigrant, The Master) alienated characters that are deeply fragile and self-loathing on some level, but also smart enough to feel that they need to disguise these traits.

He’s brilliant at conjuring a twitchy, animalistic carnality that forms an odd mesh with his fierce intelligence – in this respect, he reminds me a little of Daniel Day-Lewis. But while Day-Lewis’s performances tend to be built around a character’s stifled ferocity and barely repressed anxieties repeatedly rising to the surface explosively before being suppressed once again, Phoenix’s approach tends to be more oblique, constantly coming close to reaching a point of climax before re-asserting his composure. This tends to make him appear alternatingly infantile, goofy, belligerent and dangerously unpredictable. All the while, he remains at a purposeful distance from the audience; he leaves the impression that behind every action is a myriad of complicated inner motives at play that we can only perceive a small part of.

Take, for example, his performance as Leonard in James Gray’s Two Lovers. His character, has bipolar disorder, and it’s a testament to both Phoenix’s and Gray’s skills that they manage to illustrate how deeply this affects every aspect of his life without defining him entirely through his illness. The opening part of the scene below seems simple on paper – Leonard enters a restaurant, is lead to his table, and orders a drink. But it’s played with such a deep attention to the minutiae of his thought process that it feels major – which makes sense, because in Leonard’s hyper-active mind, everything is a major event.

I’d describe Phoenix as an incredibly athletic actor, not because he performs grand stunts, but because every aspect of his physicality is intensely fine-tuned to conveying an aspect of his character’s mental state at any particular moment. Here, Leonard’s social anxiety – as well his desire to disguise it is expressed through his mumbled drawl, erratically darting eyes, jittery way of carrying himself, and habit of letting his sentences trail off into nothing. When he’s sat on his own he seems to feel a compulsive, self-conscious pressure to make himself look pre-occupied; he smooths his suit, pretends to admire a nearby sculpture, picks his teeth, checks his phone, and switches seating position all in the span of roughly 30 seconds. When his drink arrives, he confuses the stir stick for a straw, which he then tries to use. The waiter responds by offering him a straw, and he shakes his head aggressively, refusing his gaze, before leaning back faux-casually and muttering “it’s perfect, thank you”. It’s illuminating, interstitial details of this sort that makes a character genuinely feel like a real, breathing person rather than an over-determined cipher.

Did you know?

  • In 2006, he was saved from the wreck of a car crash by Werner Herzog.
  • In addition to acting, he’s directed a number of music videos for bands such as Silversun Pickups, People in Planes and Ringside.
  • He spent a large chunk of his childhood in the religious group Children of God, which is where his family acquired the last name Phoenix. 

The Films You Should Watch:

  • The Immigrant – James Gray’s 1920’s set drama about the roots of American capitalism.
  • The Master – Paul Thomas Anderson’s jagged portrait of the psychoanalysis boom in post-war America.
  • Two Lovers – James Gray’s modern day re-telling of White Nights, which brilliantly re-imagines the Dostoevskian introverted narcissist as a dude who still lives in his adolescent bedroom and is suspicious of prescription drug companies.

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English student, filmmaker and writer for Alternate Takes, MUBI Notebook, Film International, Mcsweeney's, Senses of Cinema, Little White Lies, The Vulgar Cinema and Sound on Sight. Too crazy for boys' town, too much of a boy for crazy town.

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