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cultural vandal | by maryann johanson

the films of Joaquin Phoenix on DVD

Phoenix Rising

joaquin phoenix checks out the
competition at this year’s oscars

It’s not the first time he’s been nominated for an Oscar — his creepifying boy emperor, Commodus, in 2000’s Gladiator snagged him a supporting-actor nod; Benicio Del Toro won for Traffic — and it won’t be the first time he’s lost an Oscar, either: If things unfold tonight as they look to, Joaquin Phoenix will be second-time sad when Philip Seymour Hoffman walks away with a (not undeserved) little golden guy as 2005’s Best Actor. Phoenix will just have to make do with that Golden Globe for Best Actor in the Musical or Comedy ghetto.
But the shot in the arm of recognition even a nomination accords can’t hurt Phoenix, who — I think — has gone unfairly unrecognized by mainstream movie fans for years. Sure, critics and film fanatics have taken note of the extreme intensity he dedicates even to roles that perhaps don’t warrant it — Signs, anyone? — but I’m not sure that he has always been exactly the cup of tea casual moviegoers want: Phoenix exudes a rootedness and a passion that’s almost too intimate at times. He forces you to feel things hard and uncomfortable when maybe you just want to escape. Surely many fans of Johnny Cash’s music were not quite prepared for the concentrated power of Phoenix’s Man in Black.

Those who crave that kind of experience from film, though, can catch up with Phoenix’s surprisingly diverse body of work on DVD. I think I started to sit up and take notice and say to myself, “Wow, this guy is someone to keep an eye on” in 1998, when he appeared in two vastly underappreciated little films, Return to Paradise and Clay Pigeons — in the former, he’s a young American slowly driven insane by a stay in a Malaysian prison, and in the latter, he’s a dimbulb regular Joe who lets himself get framed for murder. In both roles (both, coincidentally, opposite a similarly ardent Vince Vaughn, who doesn’t seem to have managed to maintain Phoenix’s momentum in the years since), Phoenix is almost scarily committed to making his characters believably and even poignantly, and it’s thanks in great part to his performances that the films are more than the mere melodrama and simple comedy, respectively, that they could have been.

And that’s Phoenix’s signature: he elevates everything he’s in; bad movies get better when he’s around, and good movies get great. His porn shop clerk/wannabe musician is the sole redeeming component of the otherwise repulsive 8MM (1999). His deadpan scheming army officer in 2001’s Buffalo Soldiers turns a military satire into comedic gold. His obsessed ex-baseball player in 2002’s Signs lends the film an edgy post-9/11 patina of inarticulate anxiety — the scene in which his Merrill, who has cloistered himself in a closet to watch TV news of the alien invasion, frantically catches his brother, played by Mel Gibson, up to date on the very minute new developments is a portrait of stress and apprehension that anyone who spent mid September 2001 in front of a TV 24/7 will readily recognize.

As he’s gotten older, Phoenix has, in many ways, become a sort of unelected voice of Generation X’s particular unease: 2003’s little-seen It’s All About Love may be set in the near future, but it’s very much about nurturing personal relationships in the cold and callous culture of today, and his about-to-be-divorced John wanders in an emotional fog many of his age peers will recognize here and now. In 2004’s Hotel Rwanda and Ladder 49, two very different films that examine how lost we get in situations way bigger than anything we can ever help to control, his characters — respectively, a photojournalist and a fireman — span the range of possible approaches to such a world: his Rwanda cameraman rings with powerlessness and an embarrassment at the recognition of it; his 49 hose jockey embraces the uncertain as the only way to endure it.

I’m not sure, though, if Phoenix hasn’t always been an exemplar of the times. As a child actor, Phoenix (then going by “Leaf,” not “Joaquin”) managed to be both baby-faced and plump-cheeked as well as somehow hard and sneering, whether as a 10-year-old space-crazed kid (in 1986’s Space Camp) thrust into an adult situation (blasted off into orbit) and a paranoid, jittery preteen confronted with harsh realities of the Cold War (in 1987’s Russkies). If his characters were forced to grow up too soon, that will ring a bell for many an Xer, too.

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