Joaquin Phoenix: Cinema’s Isolationist

Here we are, well on our way to 2019 award season, and you decided to click on an article about Joaquin Phoenix’s acting ability. I’m no private investigator (though I do have my “Veronica Mars” moments), but these facts lead me to believe you’ve either seen or at least heard about his exceptional performance in “Joker.”

The controversial DC origin story has been making waves since its Venice International Film Festival debut in August, where it took home the Golden Lion Award. Since that day, critics have been divided, either singing its praises or calling it devoid of a message. After hearing months of negativity leading up to the release, I wasn’t exactly thrilled about watching “Joker” in theaters and waited until the crowds died down to go see the dark take on Batman’s nemesis. I was shocked to find the film left me captivated from start to finish, primarily because of Phoenix’s outstanding work. He carries the entire film on his shoulders, portraying a mentally ill man descending into madness. 

Joaquin Phoenix as Joker | Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Joaquin Phoenix has received plenty of Oscar buzz for his role as the social outcast Arthur Fleck, but the fact is that he has deserved Academy recognition for years. As I left the theater after “Joker,” I thought about the evolution of Joaquin’s career and all of the memorable roles he has taken on. I realized that there is one common denominator in his most memorable performances: Phoenix excels most when playing socially disconnected characters. These characters typically yearn to fit in with the rest of the world, but something keeps them from finding the “normal” life they long for so desperately. In my opinion, playing outcasts brings out the very best of Joaquin’s acting talent. Let’s take a look at Joaquin Phoenix as cinema’s isolationist.  

“Gladiator” (2000)

“Am I not merciful?” -Commodus 

Phoenix’s journey into dark and troubled characters ramped up with Ridley Scott’s “Gladiator,” almost two decades ago in 2000. In the Oscar-winning epic, he plays Commodus, the megalomaniacal Roman emperor who murdered his father for the throne. Commodus is the image of sheer terror and brutality, killing anyone who dares to threaten his power. When Maximus (Russell Crowe) is announced as the successor to the throne, Commodus kills his entire family.

“Gladiator” is the first time audiences saw how truly terrifying Phoenix could be in a role. As Commodus, he is a power-hungry sociopath, out of touch with the needs of his people. No one could stop his mad quest for power. He is far removed from the best interests of the city to serve his own personal gain. Through this menacing portrayal, we began to see Joaquin Phoenix as a cinematic isolationist, completely detached from the other characters due to his threatening nature. The terroristic qualities that Phoenix expresses through Commodus create a sense of dread and horror throughout the entirety of the film. “Gladiator” led to Phoenix’s first Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination and promising acting career.

“Signs” (2002)

“Everything has a weakness.” -Merrill Hess

Fresh off of an Oscar nomination for “Gladiator,” Joaquin teamed up with director M. Night Shyamalan to co-star in the alien thriller “Signs.” The film proved to be a significant turn from Commodus in terms of demeanor and temperament. There were no ordered executions or insane tirades in a Roman coliseum. Instead, he played Merrill Hess, a former minor league baseball player disgraced after failing to reach his full potential. He lives with his brother, Graham (Mel Gibson), to help take care of his family after tragedy strikes. 

Merrill is probably the most normal character Joaquin Phoenix has ever played. Yet, there’s still a bleak sense of dejection following his every move. Merrill has withdrawn himself from society after his failed baseball career. He’s somewhat of a local legend in his small Pennsylvania town. Whispers follow him as he walks through the town square. “You’re Merrill Hess, aren’t you?” He answers their questions with an air of sadness, revealing that his baseball dreams came crashing down. He showed shades of baseball greatness but struck out too much to have a steady career, leaving him to work at the local gas station. Merrill is a quiet and brooding character, with a shadow of defeat that follows him. He finds refuge in the solitude of the family farm until it’s time to swing away. ​

“Walk the Line” (2005)

“It looks like you’re going to a funeral.” -Vivian Cash

“Maybe I am.” -Johnny Cash

As Joaquin worked steadily in the early 2000s, he found the film that solidified him as a household name in “Walk the Line.” If you weren’t talking about “Walk the Line” in 2005, what were you talking about? It was pretty much a constant topic of conversation for every lunchroom chat at my school. ‘Did you see “Walk the Line”? Well, did you cry? What about the part where he proposed to June?’ The Oscar race was heating up, even in the halls of my middle school! If you haven’t seen “Walk The Line” 14 years after its release, you can catch it every single day of the week on the CMT Network with a commercial break that interrupts every 10 minutes of screen time.

I know the musical biopic genre has become commonplace in Hollywood, but there’s something about “Walk the Line” that hooks the viewer. Phoenix’s portrayal of the Man in Black is raw and deeply affecting. It chronicles Johnny Cash’s rise to fame and spiral down a hole of drug addiction and alcoholism. Phoenix embodies Johnny Cash’s impressive ability to write and perform inspired music, but his inability to shed the cloud of darkness and social instability that followed him after the death of his brother as a child. Johnny finds it easier to relate to the inmates at Folsom Prison than to his own family. His primary source of connection is music. The first time he sings “Folsom Prison Blues” for a record executive, you can see a dejected artist struggling to make ends meet turn into a bonafide star in just seconds. He finds a kindred spirit in June Carter (Reese Witherspoon) as the two bond over music. It’s worth noting that Joaquin Phoenix did all of his own singing for the film and sounds strikingly similar to Johnny Cash.

It’s these moments that show Phoenix is a true chameleon who can morph into pretty much any character, including a world-famous musician. “Walk the Line” deservedly earned Phoenix his second Oscar nomination for Best Actor.

“Two Lovers” (2008)

“I love you. I know you may not want to hear it, but it’s true.” -Leonard Kraditor 

Shout out to the 12 other people in the world who have seen this movie. There are literally at least a dozen of us. 

In “Two Lovers,” Phoenix plays Leonard, a depressed man torn between the love of the steady Sandra (Vinessa Shaw) or the exciting, drug-addicted Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow). Leonard’s depression keeps him in a constant internal battle. Phoenix depicts the struggle of depression brilliantly, exploring the drudging mundanity of everyday life. He acts as though he is living on his own solitary island, torn between stability (Sandra) and a cyclone of irresponsibility (Michelle, who could actually make him happy). The results are upsetting, no matter the outcome, but the journey is a masterclass in acting. 

“The Master” (2012)

“Maybe he’s past help or insane.” -Peggy Dodd, about Freddie Quell 

Phoenix may very well have solidified his future as the Joker when Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master” was released. It’s easy to compare his role of Arthur Fleck to “The Master’s” Freddie Quell: an alcoholic, PTSD-riddled, World War II vet with frequent outbursts of anger. Freddie is lost and lonely, seeking some form of connection that will help chase his many demons away. When he meets Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), founder of a mysterious organization called The Cause (a cult that is eerily similar to Scientology), he assumes his mentorship could be a way to help him function in society. What he doesn’t realize is that he’s just another experiment for Dodd to take advantage of in a strange and disturbing cult preying on the emotionally vulnerable. 

Freddie Quell may very well be past help, but that doesn’t stop Joaquin Phoenix from showing the audience some of his most impressive acting work to date. The role of Freddie is both physically taxing and emotionally riveting. Phoenix portrays the struggles of PTSD so realistically that it doesn’t even feel like watching an actor; he brings Freddie to life. His interactions with Philip Seymour Hoffman are the very core of the film. The processing sequence (clearly a riff on Scientology’s auditing process) is one of the most memorable moments of recent cinema, as Dodd grills Freddie on the most personal aspects of his life. Phoenix had half of his jaw wired shut to get a specific look for Freddie Quell, taking the physicality of the role to the next level.

The role of Freddie led to Phoenix’s third Oscar nomination, but the award went to Daniel Day-Lewis for “Lincoln.” Talk about a big year for the Best Actor category!

“Her” (2013)

“Sometimes, I think I have felt everything I’m ever gonna feel, and from here on out, I’m not gonna feel anything new, just lesser versions of what I’ve already felt.” -Theodore Twombley 

Taking a step away from the emotional exile of “The Master,” Joaquin Phoenix moved on to play the lead role in Spike Jonze’s introspective techno-drama “Her.” Theodore Twombley is the ultimate introvert in a world craving immediate connection in all of its forms. After his recent divorce from Catherine (Phoenix’s real-life fiancèe Rooney Mara), he looks to find some kind of companionship despite his lack of social skills. Theodore strikes up a relationship with his phone’s operating system, Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), and embarks on a journey of self-discovery. 

Theodore is a shy and timid man, just trying to understand the complexities of love. He finds the struggle to connect daunting and the intricacies of love downright frightening. Joaquin Phoenix portrays the awkward and emotional energy of the withdrawn and socially wounded character quite convincingly. 

“Joker” (2019)

“My whole life, I didn’t know if I even really existed. But, I do, and people are starting to notice.” -Arthur Fleck 

“Joker” is perhaps the most obvious case of Joaquin Phoenix’s penchant for social outcasts. Arthur Fleck is a man on the fringes of society, trying desperately to relate to others through comedy, but missing something pivotal. He lives with his mother in a run-down apartment building working as a clown to make ends meet. As Arthur is bullied and mocked for his behavior, he begins to resent the world around him, leading to a descent into madness. One moment, Phoenix can make the audience sympathize with Arthur and the next, make us feel deeply uncomfortable with his actions. His complex acting ability helps “Joker” go beyond a hero vs. villain story to realize the situation is not cut and dry. Due to Arthur’s mental illness, many grey areas surround the character. You can feel for all of the trauma he endures but condemn the awful deeds he commits. 

Joaquin Phoenix lost 50 pounds for the role, looking downright emaciated and unhinged. As Arthur spirals into a world of madness and violence, Phoenix contorts his body in such a way that he seems to be in a constant state of distress.

 “Joker” is a culmination of all Joaquin’s past performances rolled up into one show-stopping display. The brutality of Commodus, the theatricality of Johnny Cash, the defeat of Merrill Hess, the despair of Leonard, the loneliness of Theodore Twombley and the instability of Freddie Quell all meet to form Arthur Fleck. Could it lead to Phoenix’s fourth Oscar nomination? 

Joaquin Phoenix has proven time and time again that he is a chameleon who can transform into almost any role. In these seven highlighted performances, Phoenix has intrigued and terrified audiences as we try to understand the disconnect between the character he plays and the world around him. There may be a fundamental struggle to connect, but Phoenix never fails to dig to the very core of human emotion, compelling us every step of the way. 

What are your favorite Joaquin Phoenix performances? Let us know in the comments! 

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Featured image credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

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