The cumulative effect — and conclusion drawn — from watching one Joaquin Phoenix movie after another Joaquin Phoenix movie after another Joaquin Phoenix movie, is this: The 40-year-old actor and star of Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice would make a formidable Two-Face.
Yes, Two-Face. As in Harvey Dent, the once-comely district attorney of Gotham City turned Batman’s sworn enemy, a scarred comic-book villain who settles his mania for duality with the flip of a coin. While Phoenix also possesses a trademark scar, a fissurelike estuary connecting his top lip to his nose — which in some roles he’ll twitch like a hooked fish — that scar isn’t why Two-Face comes to mind. It’s Phoenix’s penchant for choosing roles that adhere to a dichotomy of good and evil, marked by his cache of quivers and tics, his wheezy kazoo voice, and the general sense that his entire self is made up of earthquake-esque aftershocks.
There are two Phoenixes: the mumbly, melancholic male fraught with existential woes and the brooding, deranged, totally unwieldy tough guy. Their common denominator? Dreaming big, feeling misunderstood, mom issues. One goes for walks and listens to sad tunes on his headphones, while the other lurks, skulks, and picks fights. One chases the good girl, while the other one falls hard for the rich, married blonde. One guy still lives in a two-bedroom apartment in Brighton Beach with his aging parents. The other kills his father so as to rule Rome. For Phoenix, who’s steadily built a heavyweight career with few misses and mostly acclaim, that binary is his ballast.
So much so that when critics characterize the quicksilver nature of his performances, they fall into the habit of yoking contraries. Take Phoenix’s work in James Gray’s pitch-perfect 2009 masterpiece Two Lovers — about a man named Leonard who, following a breakup and subsequent suicide attempt, is now back at home living with his parents, working at his father’s dry cleaning business, and juggling (sort of) two women. The New York Times’s A.O. Scott characterized Phoenix’s performance as an “odd blend of solemnity and mischief.” “Odd blend” is an accurate way to describe Phoenix’s handling of nuance, meaning his approach isn’t always obvious. A frenzied smile, for instance, can be interpreted as either crazed or extremely calm. Ache is clumsy. And anger dips into the loony. “Odd blend” is perhaps one way of saying that watching Phoenix can be distressingly charming.
The Guardian’s Tom Shone went as far as to suggest that Phoenix’s most recent collaboration with Gray, this year’s divisive The Immigrant, could have benefited from swapping male leads. The story is centered around a Polish woman’s (Marion Cotillard) arrival at Ellis Island, where she is nearly deported, but then saved by a man named Bruno (Phoenix), who finds her work as a prostitute, and who falls in love with her, only to have to compete with his cousin (Jeremy Renner) for her affection. The film, Shone notes, feels like “a slightly faded classic that you can’t remember whether you’ve seen or not.” It’s a testament to and an assessment of Phoenix’s brilliant inconsistencies when Shone posits that Gray may have miscast his actors, going on to state that Phoenix “might have brought a few dents” to Renner’s “knight in shining armor,” and that Renner “would have brought a much-needed sense of danger to Bruno.” Because there’s a certain volatility that underpins all of Phoenix’s work, his compass needle sometimes appears to have lost its magnet. Spinning, spinning, spinning. Onscreen, he imbues menace with dopey malaise, or flares up but with great feeling. You know — the unhinged sensitive type. The bad guy with a weakness for his mother’s cooking.
It’s impossible to consider Phoenix’s career without looking back at his breakout role in Gus Van Sant’s 1995 crime mockumentary To Die For. Resembling a young Vincent Gallo, Phoenix plays Jimmy, a troubled seacoast high-school delinquent who becomes enraptured by the local network’s weather girl, Suzanne Stone (Nicole Kidman). Power-hungry and ambitious to the bone, she aspires to become the next big news anchor. Wearing pastel suits, silk polka-dot blouses, and a sugary smile, Suzanne hatches a plan, with the help of Jimmy, to kill her husband (played by a tough but doltish Matt Dillon). Onscreen, Kidman and Phoenix look like characters from two separate films — she, sorbet-hued and synthetic, and he, a swaggering sleepwalker wearing ungroomed sideburns that make him look especially boyish. Instead of celebrating good news with “Sick!” or “Cool!” he opts for something much greasier: “Skazzah!” is what slips out of Jimmy’s mouth after he signs up to work on a documentary Suzanne is producing. Skazzah. The very sound is slimy yet electric, and mostly just off — a mix of Wayne’s World and wizardry.
Phoenix is great at playing a follower, at being susceptible, because physically he can appear emptied but eager at the same time. With his mouth agape in nearly every scene of To Die For, he looks dumbstruck but willing, hugging his boom box as if it were his stuffed toy, slouching over his desk as if it were a bar, and speaking at a consistently groggy meter like a teenager. Because Phoenix’s eyebrows fall forward, his youthfulness is at odds with something gloomier: Van Sant’s portrayal of adolescence is a zombie state.
Phoenix has worked to skirt celebrity culture, acted generally unenthused during interviews, and remained fairly anonymous in his personal life. He’s no Brando or De Niro. Phoenix is more fiction than nonfiction, like some combination of Travis Bickle, Latka Gravas, and Rupert Pupkin.
His life hit a kind of peak metafiction in April 2005 after a car accident in Hollywood. Speeding on a winding canyon road, Phoenix drove up a vertical embankment and then rolled back, somersaulting and crashing his car. The first person on the scene was, believe it or not, director Werner Herzog. Of course it was Herzog. He rushed over and peered inside the car, only to recognize Phoenix, who, much to Herzog’s surprise, was seconds away from lighting a cigarette. Of course Phoenix, hanging upside down from his seat, air bags deployed, as gasoline dripped from his car, would try to light a cigarette. “I said to him, ‘Man, relax,’” Herzog later told David Lynch in a 2010 interview. To which Phoenix replied, “I am relaxed.” The entire scene sounds like just that: a scene. The fun-loving friend — a young Mickey Rourke type — whom everyone loves but is also terrified by and deeply worried about.
Phoenix’s once reckless, self-destructive lifestyle mimics his role as Freddie Quell, the disturbed alcoholic sex fiend who barrels through life in Anderson’s The Master. A gaunt Phoenix as Freddie looks like a sunburnt rubber chicken, leathery skin hanging off his bones. In one scene we see him wearing shorts and masturbating on the beach — perhaps the only time we’ve ever seen Phoenix’s legs in any movie. He’s thin and spindly, and his spine arcs like a line of pebbles down his back.
There is perhaps no actor working today who has made more use of his or her posture than Joaquin Phoenix. It’s possible he has the most arched spine in Hollywood, as if there were a pulley-lift system on his hip bone, winding his back to various angles like a patio umbrella: up and down, up and down. In The Master, his neck cranes, his back slumps, and his arms rest twisted at his side. He’s a human pretzel, sort of. Phoenix’s near-future portrayal of a dejected dude, as Theodore Twombly in Spike Jonze’s Her (2013), is exaggerated by high-waisted pants and a sore-tummy style of walking. As Leonard in Two Lovers, he ambles around with his hands dug deep into his puffy brown winter jacket like he’s just about given up … on everything. He’s got a bulk to him, encumbered — and here’s where I yoke opposites, too — but encumbered with intermittent bursts of pure mirth. In one memorable scene, he’s sitting in the backseat of a car with three beautiful women, on their way to a club in the city. Phoenix is peak-giddy: chewing gum and bumbling his way through a joke, entertaining the group like a jester in some court. Yet even so — and this is the case with so many of Phoenix’s roles — at his onscreen happiest, he looks the most defenseless.
Phoenix’s physicality is there in the way clothes fall on his body. In The Yards, his first collaboration with Gray, he plays Willie, the slick and corrupted cousin of Leo (Mark Wahlberg), who’s just been released early on parole. But Willie leads Leo down the wrong path again, and one night, stabs and kills a Sunnyside rail-yard master. Next, we see Willie slumped over the sink as he scrubs blood off his hands, the cross on his gold chain flung around to the back of his shirt. It glints and draws attention to Phoenix’s broad back and the way it bows. He looks like a retired boxer — Phoenix wears pain, power, and focus like someone trained to sustain it.
But with that innate physicality come the deft ways Phoenix moderates it. In the 1997 coming-of-age-in-the-’50s drama Inventing the Abbotts, Phoenix plays Doug, the younger brother of Jacey (Billy Crudup), both of whom are trying to navigate their fatherless lives. Jacey obsesses over the rich Abbott sisters. Doug is plainer in his pursuits. He paints sideburns on his face with India ink for a party and then loiters by the bar eating maraschino cherries. Joaquin, younger brother to the late River Phoenix, does “younger brother” convincingly — dragging his feet, biking with a freewheeling smile like a puppy with his head out a car window. Wearing a big grin, he says things like, “I got an incomplete in history. Mrs. Bates caught me drawing boobs on a picture of Mamie Eisenhower.”
Played by anyone else, Doug might have been a succession of clichés. Even when he kisses his girl, Pam (Liv Tyler), perched on stacks of hay in a barn, he avoids formula. It’s sweet. Later, when Doug moves away to study set design at UPenn, he runs into Pam and shows her his work: a reimagined take on the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet, but this time: their barn. When Pam informs him that the barn’s been torn down, Doug replies, “They always tear down the wrong stuff.” Phoenix always expresses gentleness with childlike dejection. We see sparks of this Phoenix in Parenthood, as Martha Plimpton’s father-figure-seeking kid brother, and in Her, for which he borrows Jonze’s geeky affect.
First impressions are everything with Phoenix. Because he has a way of occupying the entire screen, it’s fascinating to look at how each director has introduced him over the years. In Abbotts, we first meet Doug looking like kid scholastic: carrying his books, chewing an apple. In The Immigrant, Phoenix is a bolo-wearing Magritte of a man, sitting on a bench at Ellis Island, looking particularly mysterious. What intrigues him will intrigue us. In The Yards, we first meet Phoenix sitting on a couch at Leo’s welcome-home party, his arm around two women as he waits for his cousin to walk in any minute. Wearing a button-up shirt the color of merlot and a black suit, Phoenix is convincing one of the girls that he’s got good instincts, that he knows this girl will make a good fit for Leo. “Trust me,” he says, smiling broadly like Sonny Corleone. “I’m blessed with a gift.” And just like that, Phoenix has established his character: confident, dodgy, persuasive but suspect.
In Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000), we meet Commodus, the son of Marcus Aurelius, as he arrives to greet his father following the Roman army’s victory over Germanic tribes. He’s lying down inside a wheelless litter carried by Roman soldiers, staring with incestuous zeal at his older sister, Lucilla. Streaks of light filter in, but Phoenix’s face is cloaked in cool blues and gray. His cheeks are rounder than in most films, all the more room for Commodus to wear his jealousy. That quickly, we know Phoenix is our resentful villain, with a guilelessness matched only by his twisted soul.
In To Die For, Jimmy first appears in jail. His head is shaved, revealing a pronounced widow’s peak. Phoenix looks like young Dracula and speaks in such a hushed monotone, it’s clear he’s done something bad. But it’s The Master’s opening shot that best captures the actor. Half of his face is obscured. The first time we see Freddie Quell, we’re privy only to the top part of his head, shaded by the brim of a combat helmet. The half-Phoenix is the whole Phoenix. He’s never fully ours, and often, he appears even obscured to himself. Anderson loves to shoot him half-lit. So does Gray. Like satellite photos of the moon. Like Two-Face.
Phoenix often appears half-lit in the real world, too, whether monkeying around in real life with Letterman on the Late Show, or committing to something like I’m Still Here. As the crown prince of auteur cinema, Phoenix has preserved a sense of deliberateness to his career that most actors struggle to retain. For all of his awkwardness, he’s never dabbled in preciousness. Instead, Phoenix represents an increasingly rare quality in Hollywood: mystery.
Durga Chew-Bose (@durgapolashi) writes and lives in Brooklyn.