Since Daniel Day-Lewis’ retirement, is the phenomenally talented JOAQUIN PHOENIX the best actor on screen today?
It’s certainly been an autumn of outstanding movies, for me. Having been wowed by First Man and A Star Is Born in the cinema, I had a similar experience on the small screen when I caught up with the hugely praised and Cannes award-winning 2017 film You Were Never Really Here. This movie by the tremendous writer/director Lynne Ramsay based on a novel by Jonathan Ames was special though in another way. It contained perhaps the finest piece of acting I’ve seen this year in the performance of JOAQUIN PHOENIX. This masterful portrayal got to me thinking that since Daniel Day-Lewis has announced his retirement from acting, perhaps PHOENIX could now be considered the greatest actor on screen today?
Phoenix as Joe in You Were Never Really Here
If you haven’t seen You Were Never Really Here, in which Phoenix’s PTSD war veteran Joe earns his living by tracking down missing girls whilst struggling to keep his nightmares from consuming him, then seek it out. It’s a visceral, unnerving and gripping 90 minutes from the superlative writer/director of We Need to Talk About Kevin and Morvern Callar. Looking like a cross between a cuddly grizzly bear and an avenging angel, a bearded, heavily built, baseball cap wearing Phoenix is mesmerising in every frame.
It’s not just the soulfulness of his eyes or the delicate way that he looks after his ageing mother (Judith Roberts). It’s the fact that these aspects of his behaviour are in stark contrast to the incredibly violent way he deals with the abductors of the young women he rescues. You empathise with this battle-scarred man as he makes his way through each day. And with Ramsay illustrating what’s going on inside Joe’s mind in a mix of disturbing but also dreamlike images, we also see his past as an FBI agent and soldier in the Gulf War. Everything comes to a head when Joe is tasked with tracking down Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov) a Senator’s daughter who’s run away. This job will push Joe to breaking point and you’ll be absolutely riveted to see what happens to him in the movie’s incredible climax.
That’s always been Phoenix’s great skill though, playing dark, flawed characters whose motivations challenge your notions of right and wrong. I remember seeing him first in Ron Howard’s comedy-drama Parenthood in 1989. Then he went by the name Leaf Phoenix and was beginning a career in counterpoint to his older and similarly talented brother River, who so tragically died in 1993 aged only 23. His performance in parenthood as Garry, the teenage son of Dianne Weist’s Helen, saw him display quiet resentment as well as flashes of anger when he trashes his father’s office. This eye-catching turn was then followed by a blisteringly good one in 1995 as Jimmy Emmett in Gus Van Sant’s To Die For. Falling obsessively in lust with Nicole Kidman’s Suzanne Vale, I watched similarly mesmerised at Phoenix’s face and what was going on behind his eyes as he watches Kidman dancing in a parking lot in the rain.
He really made an almighty splash though in 2000, as Commodus in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator. The power and pain of his portrayal as the younger child of Richard Harris’ Marcus Aurelius was utterly gripping, turning what could have been a run-of-the-mill bad guy into something very special which never fails to wow me on every viewing. It deservedly earned him his first Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor in 2001. he continued to make strong, interesting choices in the roles he chose following his Academy Award nomination. Having just worked with writer/director James Gray on The Yards, he worked with Gray twice more in 2007 and 2008 on We Own The Night and Two Lovers. This pattern of working with directors more than once was mirrored in the brace of films he did with M. Night Shyamalan (which I loved) – Signs in 2002 and The Village in 2004. And likewise with Terry George on Hotel Rwanda (2004) and Reservation Road (2007).
Phoenix with John C. Reilly in The Sisters Brothers
His superb portrayal of Johnny Cash in James Mangold‘s Walk the Line (2005) earned him a second Oscar nomination, this time as Best Actor. The fiery and unpredictable musician seemed a perfect fit for Phoenix who learnt guitar from scratch for the role and like his co-star, Reese Witherspoon sang all the songs in the movie. I’ve still to see the Casey Affleck-directed irreverent mockumentary I’m Still Here from 2010, which duped the world for some time that Phoenix had given up acting and become a rapper. And I’d so love to track down his collaboration in 2013 with James Gray again, The Immigrant because he’s working with the exquisite Marion Cotillard who would be such a dynamic sparring partner for him. I do also feel that another viewing of Paul Thomas Anderson’s much-praised The Master, in which Phoenix stars alongside the consummate Philip Seymour Hoffman and the wonderful Amy Adams, is on the cards as I didn’t quite click with it when it came out in 2012 even though the performances were exemplary.
But it’s the recent double whammy of seeing You Were Never Really Here as well as the masterful Jacques Audiard new film The Sisters Brothers, premiered at the 2018 London Film Festival in October, that has lead me to write this post. Audiard’s film is a beautifully realised revisionist western set in 1850 telling the story of two very different brothers, Eli and Charlie Sisters, who undertake any kind of job (mostly violent ones) for their boss, evocatively named The Commodore and played in an amazing cameo by the great Rutger Hauer. Phoenix stars as Charlie, the hot-headed, impetuous younger brother to the intelligent, measured Eli terrifically played by the brilliant John C. Reilly. Their love-hate relationship is explored against the backdrop of their journey west to track down Riz Ahmed’s chemist Herman Kermit Warm with his formula to discover gold. Add in Jake Gyllenhaal’s measured detective John Morris and the resulting movie is an embarrassment of acting riches from the four leads. When it comes out in April next year, make sure you see it. The film also gave me the title of my post as, at one point, Charlie says “We’re the Sisters Brothers and we’re good at what we do.” That so applies to JOAQUIN PHOENIX, a mind-blowingly accomplished actor who’s so good at what he does.