Living outside the law: The best of Joaquin Phoenix

He talks as if caught mid-gargle. He has mastered the in-character squirm. He’s villainous when funny and empathetic as a sociopath. When he accepted more parts, Joaquin Phoenix looked like he aimed to mimic his late brother River’s career playing beautiful, dorky, misunderstood tarnished angels like his young murderer in To Die For (1995), except Joaquin, with his beetle-browed mien, was the ugly-beautiful version of same. Then shrewd casting put him opposite Russell Crowe in Gladiator (2000) as Commodus, the most contorted incest-fetishizing screen emperor in film history; deciding the fate of Crowe’s Maximus, Commodus’s thumb trembles like an alcoholic’s with the shakes. After making a couple of barren ambiguities with M. Night Shyamalan, Phoenix didn’t stop: terrific as a vessel for writer-director James Gray in The Yards (2000), We Own the Night (1997), The Immigrant (2014), and, especially, Two Lovers (2008), where he and Gwyneth Paltrow had more sexual chemistry than he and Reese Witherspoon in the blah Cash-Carter biopic Walk the Line.

For Paul Thomas Anderson he contributed two diametrically opposed performances using the same resources: as the dissolute Freddy Quell, chugging turpentine in his quest to destroy himself in The Master, a film I like more now than I did in 2012; and in Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice (2017), where Phoenix’s stoned double takes match Jeff Bridges’ in The Big Lebowski

He won his Oscar for Joker, and it’s a tribute to him that, say, audiences my students’ age treasure his work as much as Heath Ledger’s. Returning to teach a film class last fall, the first thing they asked me: what’d I think of Joker? Well, here. Never mind that Phoenix’s portrayal of a man living outside the law in Lynn Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here predated Joker by a year and is the sharper film, as unwilling to yield to the audience’s squirms but without patronizing us with cynicism.

Where a lawless actor goes from here who the hell knows. Phoenix may be the figure who takes advantage of post-COVID anxieties.

The lucky ten:

1. The Master
2. You Were Never Really Here
3. Inherent Vice
4. Two Lovers
5. We Own the Night
6. The Immigrant
7. Return to Paradise
8. To Die For
9. Gladiator
10. Parenthood

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