With a face as distinct as Joaquin Phoenix’s, the odds are stacked against our one-time hip-hop renaissance man to ever truly disappear into a role – to make us forget that he was ever really there. But time and again, this performer of immense, enigmatic talent proves himself as one of the few screen actors capable of becoming fully consumed by a role and removing any sense of himself from his work entirely.
That’s no mean feat with a face as unmistakeable as his – the cleft-like scar on his top lip, the contorted smile, the heavy brow, the considerable chin. But time and again, no one takes themselves out of the equation quite like Phoenix can. Despite his golden reputation as a solid performer, there is certainly no definitive way to pin down what makes a Joaquin Phoenix performance so “Joaquin Phoenix”. Each movie loaded with a scoop of Joaqamole has its own distinct flavour.
Undeniably, he has a very expressive and magnetic face – and some of his best work is writ large upon it (Her would have been screwed if he couldn’t kill it in closeup), but it’s not the true magic ingredient to his success. What makes Phoenix such an adept, wide-ranging actor is his physicality. With him, it’s all in the posture, the positioning and the gait.
It’s all there in his triptych of Academy-nominated turns – each one more distinct from the last. Commodus, his breakthrough as an adult star in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, had all the makings of a role that could set a precedent for Phoenix to be typecast into for the rest of his career. What elevated him beyond caricatures of snivelling, pompous oiks was the sheer range he displays in the subtlest modulations of his body throughout this sweeping epic.
Commodus is a thoroughly satisfying villain – to Russell Crowe’s Maximus what Heath Ledger’s Joker was to Christian Bale’s Batman – far outshining his square, upstanding nemesis through sheer entertainment value and no small serving of emotional depth. Commodus could be desperate and pathetic, falling to his knees, hunching over in sobs to beg his father’s approval, as much as he could loom over his sister Lucilla (Connie Nielsen), the object of his desire, with a gargantuan, simmering rage. Between the extremes, he could maintain a soft, dignified poise befitting a Roman emperor.
Tying this range together, Phoenix mastered a nervous, uncertain energy that meant, no matter how Commodus held himself, the reality of a bitter, selfish child playing at war haunted his every move. By mastering his body and imbuing Commodus with this unspoken frenzy, Phoenix elicited a great deal of disgust and sympathy in equal measure.
Inhabiting the skin of country legend Johnny Cash in Walk the Line, Phoenix would apply the same practices on an entirely different wavelength. Though his face looks nothing like Cash’s, Phoenix created a fully-realised avatar of the singer through his voice and, crucially, the way he carried himself.
Cash here has swagger and confidence, but also an air of distance and uncertainty. It’s all there in how Phoenix maintains unwavering, masculine control over his steps, while his shoulders seem to weigh heavy with troubles unseen and untold. He’s at his best here when (in a shockingly convincing impression of the Man in Black’s own dulcet tones) he performs on stage. With feet planted firmly on the ground, there’s a jittery energy that seems to simmer up from his belly, as if Cash (or Phoenix) is barely resisting the urge to fall into rapture and be entirely consumed by the music.
Phoenix memorably reached Peak Joaq in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, which saw him take on some of Hollywood’s most adroit performers in Amy Adams and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. He does so by throwing absolutely everything he has at the physicality of his role as wayward veteran Freddie Quell.
Quell is a barely-capped reservoir of nervous ticks and bad habits, with Phoenix’s own emaciated frame looking to be reaching breaking point at any given moment. Every twitch and every lurch is pain to him, as is his continued existence. Even when he tries to find a place among Lancaster Dodd’s (Hoffman) acolytes, there is an element of restless resistance and damage to the way his back arches into a painful hunch and his limbs contort around at unholy angles. This plays off beautifully against the rooted bluster of Hoffman and Adams, who come up against Phoenix’s speeding motorbike like a great oak tree in the road.
Pretty soon, we will be blessed with two more Phoenix performances. Almost as if they were generated to validate this whole hypothesis, Phoenix looks nigh-on identical in both – as a live-wire, blunt-force assassin Joe in Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here and as, erm, Jesus Christ in Mary Magdalene – with his wildman mess of beard and hair. But, from the trailers alone, his approach to each part is starkly distinct.
As Joe, there is an immovable-object sort of velocity to his movements and a skittish paranoia that fuels reserves of guilt, while his Jesus appears graceful and angelic, as would be expected. Long may he keep on expanding his range by exploring just how far he can push his body. The fact he can do this without deploying ridiculous experimental diets or herculean workouts is testament to what a true master of his own physical form can do to change themselves before your eyes in the subtlest ways.
Joaquin Phoenix’s face is a gaping window into his soul, allowing for empathy and understanding. But he only has one face. Bodies, on the other hand – who knows how many of those he’s got hidden away?