It’s not absurd to say that Joaquin Phoenix is one of the most enigmatic actors of his time. His much talked about past and a series of happenings open to public interpretation established him as such. Through an up-and-down, on-again off-again, acting career and personal life; Phoenix became known around the world. This past year, however, his acclaimed and mystery-riddled road finally led to the work he was destined for.
He was born Joaquin Rafael Bottom in 1974 and had a fairly interesting upbringing (seriously, Wikipedia this guy). His patchy childhood lead him to the world of acting in the early 80s. In 1993, Phoenix’s brother, River, died of drug overdose outside of the Viper Room nightclub in Hollywood. Joaquin placed the lauded 911 phone call that countless news outlets played on repeat. The response and constant play-by-play of the event proved too overwhelming for Phoenix and he stepped away from the public light.
Several years after River’s death, Phoenix would return to acting, albeit reluctantly, and begin to truly cement his legacy. Restarting in 1995 with Gus Van Sant’s To Die For, he stayed busy for the remainder of the 90s. In 2000, he hit his first blockbuster role (and first Academy Award nom) as Commodus in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator. Then came 2005, Walk the Line, and a bona fide star was made of young Joaquin.
In 2008 Phoenix announced his abrupt retirement from acting to pursue a rap career under his new “JP” moniker. This was all part of an elaborate hoax that people would view either as a work of brilliance or a superfluous effort, a mockumentary titled I’m Still Here. With Casey Affleck as director, Phoenix gave his most divisive performance as he exploited the nature of celebrity in today’s world. Following the project, JP legitimately stepped away from the acting game.
After a couple years of turning down potential roles, PT Anderson’s The Master caught the attention of Phoenix and served as his return to the silver screen, bringing to the point of all of this; the movie and the work destined for Joaquin Phoenix. A lifetime of acting led him to this one performance.
As Freddie Quell, Phoenix played a World War II veteran coping with posttraumatic stress disorder and working with a mean case of alcoholism. Attempting to leave his troubled past and present behind him, Quell joins a religious cult that takes him in and begins to make him one of their own. Despite attempts to fit in and justify his new way of life, Quell realizes what is being fed to him is hogwash, that this is not where he belongs but, for whatever reason, can’t pull himself away. Eventually, Quell says goodbye to that existence and breaks free into the one he wants to live.
Why was Phoenix fit for this role? The tale of Freddie Quell is a metaphor for Joaquin Phoenix’s life. His past, his hesitance, his loner nature all make the pain and struggle the audience watches Freddie go through feel so real. It is. Most fitting of all this is the split reaction The Master. People (like myself) view it as an amazing piece of art and one the greatest films of modern time or simply affirm “I didn’t get it.” This sums up a large portion of the public attitude toward Joaquin Phoenix.
While his work has never been to appease anyone, JP gives his all every time. In the case of The Master, he gave the greatest performance of his career. It’s unclear whether “The Academy” will award this according (Daniel Day Lewis has been all but handed the Oscar) but this inscrutable performance will define Joaquin’s career, because there is so much of him in it. I love you JP.
Alex Mattis is a Texas man, life-long DX member and former fat kid. When Alex isn't seeing every movie this past year he is watching wrestling, because apparently he is still 12. He is the host of The Box Shift Podcast - give it a listen if you are anything like Alex.