This week we’ll be highlighting three films starring Joaquin Phoenix, for no real good reason other than that he’s become one of the greatest modern actors of our time.
Let’s take a look at Gladiator first. This film is interesting to me because it’s one I’ve always loved and thought was one of the great modern classics, and one of Ridley Scott’s finest films. It went on to win a buttload of Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Actor. But for some reason, it gets a lot of hate in various corners. I’ve never really understood that. Is it because it won Best Picture over Traffic, a similarly brilliant film from the beloved Steven Soderbergh? Or is it just not cool to like anything Ridley Scott made after Blade Runner? Honestly, it baffles me.
Gladiator is a beautifully directed epic about revenge, death, and the small measure of peace a warrior must somehow find. Russell Crowe anchors the film perfectly in the brooding, rage-filled portrayal of Maximus, but it’s Joaquin Phoenix’s Commodus who steals the show. Channeling the simmering rage that would go on to define quite a few of his later roles, Phoenix portrays Commodus with this strange, compelling mix of pathetic jealousy and incestuous lust for his sister that gives him that all-time great line-reading of “AM I NOT MERCIFUL?!” to seal his place as one of the great on-screen villains of contemporary cinema. It’s a standout turn in a thrilling film.
Moving about 14 years forward, we come to Phoenix’s latest film, The Immigrant. It was a bit shocking for me to find that this was already available on Netflix, as it barely graced theatres a month ago and never seems to have hit paid VOD. But hey, let’s not bite the hand that feeds us, because it’s a stunning piece of filmmaking from director James Gray. How come no one makes lavish, complex period pieces like this anymore? Probably just has to do with the shifts in Hollywood economics, but this is the kind of film that 80’s era Bergman would have been proud to call his own. In fact, I don’t think the Bergman comparison is that far off. The film centers around a Polish immigrant, brought to life effortlessly by the great Marion Cotillard, who finds herself forced into prostitution by Joaquin Phoenix’s showman in order to pay for her sister’s medical treatment on Ellis Island.
It’s a complex study of moral judgments, and the idea of whether or not sin is still sin when we do it to survive in the world. Gray is content to hold his eye on a subject for longer than modern editing usually allows for, and his staging of drama within intimate spaces is so immaculate that it makes me want to weep. This stunning mixture of classical, Fordian composition and modern nuance is like some sort of black magic that ends up resulting in a film so beautifully realized that it’s a tragedy we aren’t throwing a parade in Gray’s honor. And since we’re talking Joaquin Phoenix, his performance is another in a line of excellence that has defined his career, especially in later years; channeling barely contained rage and self-loathing in a way perhaps not as transformative as other turns, but nevertheless just as fascinating.
However, we need to talk about what is the actor’s honest-to-god greatest moment in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master. Based not-so-secretly on the early days of Scientology, and L. Ron Hubbard’s rise to fame, the film chronicles a former sailor and lost soul named Freddy Quell (Phoenix) who is taken in by a mysterious and charismatic organization leader named Lancaster Dodd (Philipp Seymour Hoffman). Dodd finds Quell irresistible as a pet project and something of a surrogate son and/or brother, and their relationship becomes one of the most deeply compelling and strange stories of love ever put on screen. If I had to try and nail down what the film is really about (an extremely difficult task, honestly), I’d say it’s about how we deal with trauma as human beings, and how a person, or cause, can be a lifeboat in the sea of insanity that is life, and how desperately we’d cling to that shred of safety even if we know all along that we have to let it go eventually.
On the less heady and enigmatic side of things, I honestly feel this is the finest achievement in Phoenix’s entire career. He contorts his body and face in ways I can’t possibly describe, giving Freddy Quell a physicality and appearance reminiscent of Popeye the Sailor, and brings something entirely new to the table, yet it feels of a piece with the kind of characters that have defined his storied career. There’s just something otherworldly about it, not unlike Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight, or Daniel Day Lewis in Anderson’s previous feature, There Will Be Blood. Above all else, the film is one of the strangest, heady, and stunning pieces of filmmaking in the last twenty years.