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The Lost Souls of Joaquin Phoenix

The first thing you notice is the pain. Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) looks and sounds like he’s in a deep level of discomfort at all times. His frame is emaciated and gnarled, and that’s not taking into account the uncontrollable nervous cackle tic brought on by a neurological condition, one that excruciatingly wheezes out as he attempts to suppress it. Moreover, he looks like he hasn’t had a good day in his life: he walks home in a slow, downward-gazing shuffle, and he forces his face into an unnerving smile that only highlights his obvious malaise. As a party clown and aspiring comedian, he attempts to find ways to bring joy to the world, but mostly he makes others uncomfortable and makes things worse for himself, and that’s before the funding for his much-needed medication and therapy is cut. The question is not whether Arthur is destined for destruction, but whether it will be implosive or explosive. 

Few performers are as committed to portraying broken people and lost souls; fewer still are more willing to use their talents for difficult, potentially alienating projects (“Inherent Vice,” “You Were Never Really Here”) or as able to pull off physical and emotional high-wire acts as routinely as he does. Phoenix has more than earned the raves he’s receiving for “Joker,” a film that actively invites comparisons to “The King of Comedy” and “Taxi Driver” but falls closer to being his “Cape Fear.” It’s a broader, almost cartoonish variation on his type of broken man that’s nonetheless both convincing and utterly riveting to behold (he unfortunately does not have a talent on the level of Martin Scorsese, or even a passable imitator, to back him up). One hopes that the actor’s next performance will cut as close to the bone without requiring him to become skin and bones again. Regardless, it’ll join a rich collection of characters, like the following five performances, who’ve experienced some profound level of hurt and are trying to connect to someone or something.

1995: “To Die For

Joaquin Phoenix was born in Puerto Rico to the Bottom family, which renamed itself Phoenix after leaving the Children of God religious cult and moving back to the U.S. mainland. After initially earning income by performing on the streets, Joaquin and his four siblings were discovered by a top Hollywood agent and began their acting careers. Joaquin, who briefly changed his name to “Leaf” to fit in with his nature-named siblings, had a few notable roles as a child actor, most notably as Dianne Wiest’s sensitive son in Ron Howard’s “Parenthood” (seen here having his heart broken by his father). He took some time away from acting as his older brother, the gifted young actor River Phoenix, gained greater acclaim for performances in films such as “My Own Private Idaho” and “Dogfight” before tragically dying of a drug overdose at the age of 23 (Joaquin, who was only 19, was the one who called the ambulance).

When Joaquin Phoenix did return to the screen in 1995’s “To Die For” (with River’s “My Own Private Idaho” director Gus Van Sant), he made an immediate impression as Jimmy Emmett, one of three directionless teenagers convinced by sociopathic aspiring broadcast journalist Suzanne Stone Maretto (Nicole Kidman, brilliant) to murder her husband (Matt Dillon). As the one who feels an immediate, intense emotional and sexual attraction to Suzanne, Phoenix plays Jimmy as someone who’s emotionally expressive and earnest while being verbally inarticulate, unintelligent. A poor kid, he struggles to find the right words to describe what separates Suzanne from everyone around him, and from most other rich people: “She just looks ... clean.” When Suzanne calls him “James” rather than “Jimmy,” he freezes; we don’t have to wait for him to say that nobody ever called him that before, as he does in his prison interview later. It’s written on his face, in a look in his eyes that says, “maybe I’m not just a dumb kid to her.” 

He is, and an easily manipulated one. The most heartbreaking thing about Phoenix’s performance in “To Die For” is that he plays someone who’s never quite able to figure out exactly what’s happening to him. When we see his face register that something’s not quite right about her immediate shift to joy after telling him (falsely) about her husband’s abusiveness, his smile fading, it’s immediately followed by him forcing himself back into that smile. When she asks him (mid-blowjob) if he understands why he has to get a gun, there’s a total lack of comprehension on his face as he says, “I guess so.” When committing the crime, he looks tortured, with a dim recognition on his face that what he’s been told about Dillon’s mean-temperedness doesn’t square with the mild-mannered guy he’s about to kill. When he’s been caught and it’s explained to him what happened, he breaks down, insisting that “it wasn’t like that ... we were in love.” For a brief moment, he found someone who made him feel like he wasn’t alone and that he wasn’t just white trash. Even at the end, he can’t bring himself to realize that he was just being used; all he can say is that he misses his friends.

2008: “Two Lovers

If “To Die For” began Phoenix’s career properly, a trio of films in 2000 made him a star. He gained the most acclaim (including an Oscar nomination) for Ridley Scott’s “Gladiator,” in which he gives a spectacularly hammy performance as the perverted, petulant Emperor Commodus; while he’s noticeably more theatrical here than in his later work, Phoenix manages to make the character both hilariously off-putting and pitiable, always radiating a need to be adored by his father, his sister and his subjects. Phoenix also co-starred in Philip Kaufman’s “Quills,” though the purple prose of the script and overacting of lead Geoffrey Rush ultimately get the best of him there. 

But it was the least-heralded (initially) of the films that year that proved to be the most important. James Gray’s “The Yards” was shot in 1998 but not released until 2000, and then only barely, thanks to the meddling of mogul/serial predator Harvey Weinstein. The film is nevertheless remarkable, and Phoenix impresses as Willie, making his journey from small-time criminal who cares deeply for his friends and family to the one responsible for their pain wholly tragic. Gray would become the key collaborator of Phoenix’s early career, teaming up again in 2007 for the even-better “We Own the Night.” That film serves as the true introduction to the actor Phoenix is today, playing a bigger-than-life character while making his every gesture (his dismissive defense mechanism shrugs and scoffs) feel naturalistic, introducing him as the life of the party before he gradually forces himself into a box, regaining a family but losing his independence and spirit. Phoenix worked with Gray again a year later in the masterpiece “Two Lovers,” giving one of his best performances as a man who’s been so badly hurt that he yearns for a complete break from the world he knows, no matter the consequences. 

Phoenix’s Leonard Kraditor is introduced from behind, slumping in a way that suggests total defeat even before his abortive suicide attempt; it wasn’t his first. He’s clearly wounded and a little odd, muttering and stuttering and trying not to look directly at anyone, but there’s something endearing about his vulnerability and honesty when he tells Sandra (Vinessa Shaw) that his fiancée left him after learning they both possess a gene that would have led to their children dying young; he’s even charming, gently ribbing Sandra when she says her favorite movie is “The Sound of Music” (“underrated”). But as much as their parents (potential business partners in the Jewish community in Brooklyn) try to push them together, and as much as Sandra is clearly attracted to him, Leonard gravitates toward Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow, never better), a troubled neighbor having an affair with a married man. It’s equally funny and a bit heartbreaking watching Leonard try so hard to both impress her and seem like he’s not trying too hard, whether he’s breaking into a dorky white guy’s rap to entertain her friends or, when she’s not paying attention to him during a dinner, swaying to the side and looking away to “casually” exclaim that he’s got a girlfriend.

What’s devastating about “Two Lovers” is that we see both a small story of a man processing grief and pain and a much larger one of someone torn between two worlds (Gray’s specialty), yearning for something more while being pulled back to the familiar. There’s nothing wrong, per se, about Sandra, and his affection for her feels real, to some extent: if nothing else, you can tell that he’s sensitive to her feelings, that he wants to be wanted, and he likes that she likes him so much. But Michelle represents something new for him—a potential escape—and he yearns for someone who might be able to understand his pain. In each scene where he plays the good listener to her, you can see both genuine sensitivity to her problems and eagerness to be noticed. When he confesses his love, we see much of it from behind him, everything that’s been bottled up in him for years manifesting in his back and arms as he bobs back and forth and his head cranes down, years’ worth of shame and pain spilling out. That he briefly seems like he’s found the right person but has to break the hearts of his girlfriend and family is gut-wrenching, his goodbye to his mother both overwhelming and freeing. It’s no easier to watch him have his heart broken again, even as it means stability and a whole family that loves him. “Two Lovers” is one of Phoenix’s finest films because it shows a broken man being built back up again, only to find himself still feeling lost no matter how many people who truly care for him are there.

2012: “The Master

Of course, it’s taken a few years for “Two Lovers” to get the attention it deserved, given that its release was overshadowed by another, lesser film that initially seemed like it might tank his career. Phoenix spent much of the 2000s balancing adventurous projects (Thomas Vinterberg’s misbegotten “It’s All About Love”) with more middling pictures (the Johnny Cash biopic “Walk the Line,” which nevertheless gained him another Oscar nod), blockbusters both original (M. Night Shyamalan’s “Signs” and the grossly underrated “The Village”) and ho-hum (“Ladder 49,” a film that feels like it should star Mark Wahlberg, but somehow doesn’t). He went way out on a limb when he announced during the press tour for “Two Lovers” that he was quitting acting for hip-hop and appeared confused and disheveled on “Late Show with David Letterman.” It ultimately proved to be a stunt for “I’m Still Here,” a mockumentary about fame and an artist losing his way that’s at once an impressive performance, a tedious experiment and an uncomfortable artifact, given the allegations that director (and Phoenix’s then brother-in-law) Casey Affleck sexually harassed two of his collaborators on set. 

Just as the film’s financial failure and overall bad press seemed like it might limit the roles Phoenix would be offered, he was cast as the lead in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master.” It’s difficult to convey just how unexpected and electrifying the role was upon its release, even as it’s become the go-to pick for Phoenix’s best performance and one of the essential films of the 21st century, one that takes the strange post-"I’m Still Here" aura around Phoenix and pushes it to its logical conclusion. As Freddie Quell, a traumatized world War II veteran who seems like he was probably already erratic before the war, Phoenix gives a performance that’s counterintuitively mannered and spontaneous, bestowing Freddie several tics that nevertheless feel like a natural extension of his being—the hunched posture that makes him look like a buzzard, a permanent sneer that closes one side of his mouth and accentuates Phoenix’s own scar, and a feral jerkiness that seems to be the gesticulation of a man who acts without thinking about what he’s doing. He’s both prone to melancholy and constantly horny, and these things are directly connected to each other; he’s introduced humping a sand sculpture of a woman far past the point where the joke is funny, only to lie down and embrace it in a perfect portrait of loneliness. 

When he meets Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman, also in a career-best performance), he meets a defining figure in his life, one that lays bare his unhappiness and, briefly, seems to find a solution. In the film’s instant-classic processing scene, his emotions are laid bare in close-up: at first, Freddie is loose-limbed and relaxed, answering with laughs and mildly confused lip purses at unimportant questions. On more important ones (“do your past failures bother you?”), his “no's” are very slightly more exaggerated, conveying the thoughts of a man who subconsciously knows that he’s lying to Dodd and himself, but wants it to seem like he doesn't care about the question, someone who is, in fact, concerned with the impression he makes. When he’s given the physical challenge of not blinking (and immediately told he failed), his defenses are broken down, and he becomes less able to filter his remarks. By the third go-around, we see a man forced to be honest with himself about how damaged he is, how inconsequential he feels, how frightened he is that he’ll end up like his psychotic mother, how lost he is without the girl he loved, and how he’s sabotaged his own life. His elation upon unburdening himself sees the actor in a full-body high. He no longer judges Dodd’s strangest, most paranoid questions. It’s potential for a new peace for him.

Or so it would seem. If that brief moment of enlightenment was a high, it’s one he chases for the rest of the film, with doubt gradually creeping into his expression as he listens to Dodd’s sermons and as Dodd’s son states the obvious that he’s making it all up. From that point forward, it’s a battle between dueling impulses, a true believer’s violent need to lash out at any heretics and a doubting man’s deep frustration at what he knows isn’t reaching him anymore. The montage of Freddie being forced to walk back and forth in a room, cut together a more confrontational form of processing, is instructive as we see him trying in earnest to regain that high but lashing out as it doesn’t connect; you see total defeat on his face after yet another failed attempt (“I just don’t understand it”) and him embracing his innate grotesquerie as he grows more frustrated, pressing himself up against a window and punching a wall. By the time his body and mind surrender and he empties himself of emotion as Dodd desires, he doesn’t even believe that Dodd isn’t toying with him at first. Even an embrace is insufficient. He’ll leave Dodd and pursue that girl, only to find that he was far less important to her life than she was to his; he’ll return to Dodd, gaunt and ghostlike, “free to go where you please” but without any sense of victory or purpose. “The Master” moves because it shows a damaged man return back to where he was, totally lost, but without the comfort of ignorance or the hope of finding someone. If Anderson’s earlier film “Magnolia” shows lost souls finding some measure of closure or solace, “The Master” shows Phoenix’s ultimate lost soul, who’ll be searching for the rest of his life.

2014: “Inherent Vice”

Phoenix was back in-demand after “The Master” earned him a third Oscar nomination and rapturous reviews. The next few years saw him continuing his string of miraculous performances comparable to De Niro’s run in the '70s and early '80s. He first reteamed with James Gray for his exquisite 2013 film “The Immigrant” (another barely released film sabotaged by Harvey Weinstein), playing the pimp Bruno Weiss as a man whose sincere love for Marion Cotillard’s Ewa doesn’t stop him from exploiting her and causing her pain. It’s one of the finest films about the American Dream’s ability to give hope for happiness even as it breaks people down, and Phoenix’s unburdening in the final scene best encapsulates its conflicted, empathetic heart, showing a man expressing his justified self-loathing before he’s told that he is “not nothing,” with no guarantee that it’ll be enough. He’s just as exceptional that same year in “Her,” a Spike Jonze love story that empathizes with its central character’s loneliness and genuine passion while being far more critical of his dependency and deep need for validation than it gets credit, even from its fans. Phoenix plays Theodore Twombly with real tenderness while allowing his confrontations with the women in his life to show his childishness and difficulty meeting others’ needs. 

Both of these films feel like precursors to 2014’s “Inherent Vice,” his second film with Paul Thomas Anderson and one that is greater with each viewing. Phoenix brings a new level of shaggy charisma to Larry “Doc” Sportello, a private detective who’s sharp as hell but slightly dulled by all the dope, reacting to new information in the film’s labyrinthine plot with a kind of slightly irritated befuddlement that suggests he knows he’ll figure out what’s going on soon enough but he’s not ... quite ... there ... yet. The actor is equally adept at the film’s whiplashes between overt cartoonishness (his zero-to-100 shift from a horrified scream at a disturbing photo to an immediate look of calm, as if we’re seeing both his internal reaction and his external one simultaneously and it’s not quite clear which is which) and more understated humor (his “oh, come on, man” underreaction to Josh Brolin’s hippie-hating cop “Bigfoot” Bjornsen kicking in his door). 

The performance gets the humor of the hippie while taking seriously the sadness that a dream of a kinder, more egalitarian and less greedy and fearful world was slipping away. His every encounter with the darker forces chipping away at that dream shows someone who’s wholly unable to push back against their all-encompassing power, but who might be able to help one person (Owen Wilson’s deeply sad Coy Harlingen) regain some measure of freedom. Phoenix’s brief moment alone after his final scene with Wilson is among the best scenes he’s ever played, allowing the silence to convey both the grand-scale sadness and the small-scale happiness of the moment. 

Like “Two Lovers,” “The Master” and “Her” before it, “Inherent Vice” sees Phoenix’s lost character processing an old relationship that still looms large over his life, however much he may deny it here. The performance is a masterpiece of someone pretending they’ve moved on from the past. When Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston) first appears asking for his help, he tries to probe into her relationship under the guise of professionalism, but his curt, downbeat delivery can’t quite mask his bitterness. Whenever he’s challenged by Bigfoot or his current girlfriend, Reese Witherspoon’s square Assistant D.A. Penny, Doc tries too hard to appear nonchalant, only to overplay it badly and come off as cagey. It’s when Shasta reappears that his pain and unhealthy anger breaks through, with her seeing through his mocking tone and prodding at his weakness, his jealousy and his melancholy; Phoenix plays the scene quietly, letting his sexual attraction, his fear, his pain and his fury bubble up together until she he encourages him to let it explode. It's a violent, uncomfortable sex scene that nevertheless shows the tenderness in their relationship, Doc’s warring impulses of love and possessiveness. By their final scene together, it’s unclear, exactly, what’s coming next for either of them, but his enigmatic smile suggests that the fact that that tenderness remains, that it was there at all, is meaningful, regardless of how painful the end might be.

2017: “You Were Never Really Here”

“Inherent Vice” is one of Phoenix’s funniest and sweetest films, its still-considerable sadness and poignancy notwithstanding. His next truly great performance is a total gearshift. After giving a fascinating but not particularly successful performance in Woody Allen’s “Irrational Man” that suggests what would happen if “Last Tango in Paris”-era Marlon Brando played Martin Landau’s character from “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” Phoenix starred in four films from 2017 to 2018. One of them, “The Sisters Brothers,” is slight but funny and warm-hearted; another, “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot” (his first film with Gus Van Sant since “To Die For”), is familiar but aided by grace notes and the sensitive performances of Phoenix, Jonah Hill and Jack Black. A third, the long-delayed “Mary Magdalene,” has his first unmemorable performance since 2007’s woeful melodrama “Reservation Road,” with his take on Jesus Christ mostly coming off as passive-aggressive and dully brooding. He’s equally ursine but far more compelling in Lynne Ramsay’s devastating “You Were Never Really Here,” giving a performance that’s by far his most frightening and among his saddest.

We know what ails Joe, a hired gun who’s living with the trauma of his and his mother’s abuse by his father, post-traumatic stress disorder from his experiences fighting overseas, and suicidal ideation. He uses violent methods to hurt men who abuse young girls, employing his hulking frame and quiet menace at one point to overpower a young man working for them and softly conveying that he could kill him without any effort. When he isn’t beating sex offenders to a bloody pulp with a ball-peen hammer, he’s either gently caring for his almost ghostly mother or acting out suicidal scenarios with bags and knives. “You Were Never Really Here” uses fragmented, impressionistic flashbacks and fixations to approximate Joe’s dissociation, but Phoenix’s body language is what sells it. Joe tries hard to hide his pain when he’s not alone, but we see him freeze when his mom brings up his girlfriend from 20 years ago. His every downward glance, terse reply and withdrawn, non-communicative gesture when he’s out and about shows a man in deep discomfort that he’s tamping down at all times. He’s someone who’s constantly trying to disappear, and it’s only when he can engage in his most destructive and self-destructive instincts, getting some measure of personal psychic revenge on others’ victimizers or pushing himself to almost but not quite harm himself, that he allows himself to engage his trauma.

On paper, the film’s central storyline, in which Joe attempts to save a young girl (Ekaterina Samsonov) from particularly powerful traffickers led by the governor of New York, plays like an extended version of the “Taxi Driver” finale that risks validating Travis Bickle’s murderous desires, not to mention Joe’s own suicidal impulses. In actuality, the film understands his feelings while showing how unsatisfying his actions ultimately are; when he’s robbed of catharsis, Phoenix’s breakdown is overwhelming, a primal panic attack that leads to Joe’s conclusion that no matter how much he’s built himself up as an avenging angel, he’s “weak.” He isn’t, but Phoenix and Ramsay show with few words just how broken he feels and how uncertain he is about what comes next. “It’s a beautiful day,” but whether or not there’s going to be any relief is unclear.

“Joker” is less delicate and less intelligent about depression, trauma and violence, throwing everything but the kitchen sink at Arthur. The film’s clumsiness ultimately muddies whatever director Todd Phillips had on his mind regarding social isolation and pain being used to self-justify abhorrent behavior, if he indeed had anything in mind beyond thin justification for portraying violent acts from DC Comics’ most famous supervillain. Yet even in a film that feels largely fraudulent, Phoenix, the most exciting American actor working today, manages to find a measure of truth. One thinks of how all life drains from his body as his hero, talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), mocks him on television, or how Phoenix conveys Arthur’s warring impulses of malice and genuine desire for connection when he reaches out to Gotham’s most famous family. It’s another performance that manages to make affected behavior feel lived-in, as if Arthur’s desperately trying to mimic normal human interactions but can’t quite manage it; by the time he embraces his identity as Joker, a violent sociopath, he’s given that up. He no longer feels lost or broken, but what he’s found is a black hole.

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