The Good, The Bad & The Badass: Joaquin Phoenix
Last week, we took a look at the career of tough guy extraordinaire Bruce Willis. This week's actor is more atypical for this column, but look below the surface and you'll find an actor that's absolutely uncompromising in his pursuit of quality material....
Earlier this year, it seemed like Joaquin Phoenix was on the verge of signing a long-term deal with Marvel that would have seen him cast as DR. STRANGE. While it ultimately didn't happen (Benedict Cumberbatch wound up getting the part) just the fact that Phoenix was being pursued shows you how completely Phoenix, who was all but written off during his I'M STILL HERE phase, has succeeded in his comeback.
Prior to his big breakdown (which he maintains was a piece of performance art that got out of hand) Phoenix was quickly making his way onto the A-list. After breaking through with his turn in TO DIE FOR, Phoenix (the brother of the late, great River Phoenix) rapidly became a heartthrob in movies like INVENTING THE ABBOTTS, and then a well-regarded character actor in films like RETURN TO PARADISE (a movie which proves the folks behind TRUE DETECTIVE were wise to cast Vince Vaughn in a serious part), CLAY PIGEONS, and as the sneering villain in Ridley Scott's GLADIATOR.
Phoenix hit his commercial pinnacle in the early 2000's in LADDER 49 and hit the big time with WALK THE LINE, where he played Johnny Cash – and walked away with an Oscar nomination for his trouble. After that, Phoenix went a little squirrely, but Paul Thomas Anderson's THE MASTER re-established him in a big way, gaining him another Oscar nomination. Since then, Phoenix has consistently cited as one of the best – if most unusual – actors of his generation.
Up to last year, WALK THE LINE would have easily been my choice for Phoenix's best performance. However, Spike Jonze's HER is without a doubt the best thing he's ever done. Not only is it an absolute masterpiece and one of the most affecting – if unconventional – love stories of our time, but Phoenix is admirable restrained, making for a vulnerable romantic lead. He's never been better, and I'd wager HER is one of the best movies of the decade.
One movie I never got the affection for is LADDER 49. A warmhearted tribute to firemen, the movie has good intentions but is ultimately a watered-down BACKDRAFT (and not even close to the level of something like RESCUE ME), and about as bland as a Nicholas Sparks adaptation. It feels like Phoenix was chasing stardom with this movie, and I really doubt he'd ever agree to something as conventional as this nowadays.
When James Gray's WE OWN THE NIGHT came out in 2007, I thought is was one of the best films of the year. Sadly, I was one of the few to think this as the movie wasn't well-received. For me, it remains James Gray's best film. Gray clearly loves Phoenix, with them having done THE YARDS, TWO LOVERS and THE IMMIGRANT together, and it's easy to see why. Phoenix always delivers, and this is probably their most accessible, enjoyable collaboration, being a tough thriller casting him as a drugged-up nightclub owner turned informant who tries to measure up to his cop father (Robert Duvall) and macho brother (Mark Wahlberg). It's a consistently surprising, action-packed movie, and a gem just waiting to be discovered.
THE MASTER is the film that really put Joaquin Phoenix back on the map and it's easy to see why. The amount of anger that he unleashes at various points in the movie is truly uncomfortable to watch, and he often gives us the impression that we're watching a caged animal. Nowhere is this more apparent then in the scene where Phoenix is locked-up along side Hoffman's false prophet, and proceeds to tear his cell to shreds.
While Phoenix still hasn't found a movie as commercially successful as WALK THE LINE, he's firmly back on the A-list. This week sees the wide release of his latest P.T Anderson collaboration, INHERENT VICE, while he'll also pop up in Woody Allen' latest by the year's end.
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