The Master: Exploring Joaquin Phoenix’s darkest roles
The press was awash with high praise for Lynne Ramsay’s noir drama You Were Never Really Here, adapted from the novella of the same name by Jonathan Ames. (Check out our interview with Ames here.) Joaquin Phoenix led as Joe, a veteran-turned-hitman tasked with rescuing a teenage girl from a sex-trafficking ring. It’s a dark and melancholy film, illustrating a traumatic vision of a killer’s quest for redemption.
The New York Times described Phoenix’s performance as “impressive”, adding that while the dialogue might be kept to a minimum, “the sound of his breathing, his groans of frustration, and . . . his occasional squalls of weeping are hard to forget.”
His character Joe is a man haunted by grief and tormented by thoughts of suicide. This was a particularly dark role for Phoenix to fulfill, but when it comes to taking on a character with a dejected edge, You Were Never Really Here wasn’t his first rodeo.
In fact, for much of his acting career Phoenix has often favored complex & conflicted characters with at least some sort of dysfunctional bone in their brittle bodies. Today we’re here to celebrate the actor’s pristine style by looking back at some of his darkest performances to date from the good to the jaw-droppingly remarkable.
Two Lovers (2008)
In this strikingly human melodrama, Phoenix stars alongside Gwyneth Paltrow (Shakespeare in Love) & Vinessa Shaw (3:10 to Yuma) as the protagonist Leonard – a complicated character with suicidal tendencies and an inner torment that spills out into his love life as he attempts to grasp onto desire at the risk of destroying life’s safe comforts.
However, Phoenix is sensitive with his remorse. Rather than presenting Leonard with self-pity and despite the many dark themes and the heartbreak, Two Lovers is ultimately a film full of hope and optimism.
A controversial choice we know, and we also know it’s not exactly an example of his acting range. However, you’ve gotta give Phoenix kudos for getting involved – as a documentary revealing the pain and suffering of factory farm animals on a devastating scale, Earthlings is arguably one of the most horrific horror films ever made.
With Phoenix as the voiceover, the actor contributes to one of the most impactful on-screen wake-up calls the world has ever seen.
Walk the Line (2005)
Channeling the highs and lows of Johnny Cash’s iconic career, Phoenix garnered rave reviews and an Oscar nomination for his splendid and believable performance as the famed singer-songwriter. Those were some mighty big boots to fill and Phoenix filled them exceptionally well, showing off his range as an actor and performer.
To Die For (1995)
In an earlier role and the start of his strong relationship with director Gus Van Sant, Phoenix stars alongside Nicole Kidman (Big Little Lies) & Matt Dillon (The House That Jack Built) in this dark look at the modern hunger for fame.
Phoenix plays a troubled high-school student who is seduced by the ruthless news anchor hopeful (Kidman) and subsequently bribed into commiting murder for a woman who will stop at nothing to gain worldwide acclaim.
At just 19, Phoenix portrayed the weak-willed and guilt-ridden character fantastically well, later claiming it was a role that “really changed me as an actor.”
Inherent Vice (2014)
Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s eponymous novel has been compared to the Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski in its use of stoner comedy and hardboiled pulp. However, unlike the Dude, Phoenix’s character Larry “Doc” Sportello is a smart detective, seeking danger and action even if he is greened to the eyeballs.
Phoenix masters the art of being (or at least pretending to be) high, managing to stand out among an all-star cast (Katherine Waterston, Reese Witherspoon, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Benicio Del Toro) in a performance that’s impossible to look away from.
Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot (2018)
Phoenix excels as the alcoholic quadriplegic cartoonist John Callaghan in Gus Van Sant’s recent biopic. His on-screen chemistry with co-star Jonah Hill (The Wolf of Wall Street) is outstanding, both complementing each other with a sweet-and-sour concoction that’ll make you laugh and cry all at the same time.
I’m Still Here (2010)
One of Phoenix’s best performances was when no one even knew it was a performance. As part of a truly unique social experiment carried out together with Casey Affleck (A Ghost Story), back in 2009 Phoenix grew out his beard, adopted a batsh** demeanor, and managed to convince the world he was launching a hip-hop career as part of a seemingly severe mental breakdown.
Of course, it was all a ruse for the film I’m Still Here, which presented Phoenix’s ability to stay in character in nearly every situation (including a disastrous episode of Letterman) while also delivering a poignant message about celebrity culture.
The Master (2012)
In another collaboration with Paul Thomas Anderson (Phantom Thread), Phoenix starred alongside the late great Philip Seymour Hoffman (Capote) in this sweeping period drama infused with Scientology overtones. Phoenix gives a (dare we say it) masterful performance as Freddie Quell, a drifter containing many of the characteristics Phoenix is familiar with – mental illness, alcoholism, and a touch of edgy nervousness.
In this heartbreaking yet heartwarming Spike Jonze (Where the Wild Things Are) love story, Phoenix co-stars with a faceless AI (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) as a lonely withdrawn writer who develops an intense and deep relationship with a device unable to reciprocate with human emotions.
Exploring the evolving nature of love in the digital era, Phoenix brings to the film a bittersweet melancholy, perfectly simulating the engrossing excitement of falling in love teamed with the devastation of knowing the romance can never, ever be authentic.