Joaquin Phoenix and the Bodily Cost of Loneliness

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Joaquin Phoenix and the Bodily Cost of Loneliness

There is an unassuming rigidity which possesses Joaquin Phoenix in all of his performances, like the coldness of the world has seeped in and made his limbs brittle and askew. His depiction of Leonard in James Gray’s Two Lovers carefully exemplifies this. In the opening moments, he plunges into a Brooklyn stream, briefly subsumed by waves of freezing cold grief, implied to be one in a series of attempts to take his own life. After he is rescued by passers-by, he plods home, struggling under an invisible weight which presses down on him—on us. Phoenix slumps forward, his ill-fitting shirt falls over his arms and sits taut against his shoulders; engulfed by the clothes he wears, he is physically dragged into the ground.

Loneliness undercuts all of Phoenix’s films, including his most recent venture Beau Is Afraid, where he makes this career-long preoccupation explicit; embodying someone who is literally splintered across time and space. But this ability to channel aimlessness can be undermined by directors who confuse pessimism for depth. Gray’s seemingly dour take on unrequited love in Two Lovers is tinged with a shade of possibility, hopefulness only discernible in the cloudy blur of mid-winter. Late in the film, Leonard is talking to his father (Moni Moshonov) about the prospect of a New Year’s swim in the sea. “Be careful, Pap” he warns. “I will” his father responds, a softer rendering of Leonard’s earlier experience, a callback to the encroaching waves he once swam towards and against. Advice born from intimate experience, passed on to ensure his father feels less alone. 

Phoenix’s next collaboration with Gray would be similarly defined by solitude. In The Immigrant, Bruno is seemingly better connected than Leonard, armed with a makeshift family of vulnerable people. In reality, he has sequestered himself away from the world, siphoning off women and wielding them for financial gain. Early in the film, his unsettling loneliness is revealed when he reaches out to embrace Ewa (Marion Cotillard), before she steps back, bumping into the rickety furniture, spurning his advances. He erupts, staging an intervention with the other sex workers, forcing them to bear witness to one another’s pain in fittingly performative ways. The connections are flimsy and unearned, crumbling under the weight of the state as the government cracks down on those who are living in New York illegally. Still this loneliness serves the story, necessary to his eventual moral discovery at the end of the film. Phoenix’s performance in both of Gray’s projects are defined by the move from distant observation to involved commitment; his characters are forced to reckon with how their isolation impacts those around them. Both end after imparting their protagonists with a newly complicated understanding of the world.

Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here and Mike Mills’ C’mon C’mon are unlikely companion pieces, united in Phoenix’s back-breaking physicality and the swells of thoughtful silence which overcome his characters. In both cases his character is caring for a family member—for Joe in You Were Never Really Here this means his mother (Judith Roberts) and for Johnny in C’mon C’mon this means babysitting his nephew Jesse (Woody Norman). In both films he reaches through the web of individualized insecurities to remain attuned, slipping away from the protectee’s life only to bounce back, more determined, newly present. Both films are energized by melancholy, an unshakeable sense that the wide-open potential of the world will inevitably scale down to just each of us, alone and shrinking against other, less sensitive people. In both cases these protagonists are activated by bonding with younger parties who are better equipped to embrace this truth in its wide-openness, falling into what makes the world unknowable. There is something wondrously optimistic about this adoption of innocence that forces us out of our isolation and into explicit reliance on others. Both films feature climactic scenes of Johnny and Joe carrying their younger counterparts in a piggyback—physically trudging towards the next stage of life, holding and being held by something that feels distinctly hopeful. Despite the dramatically different contexts, there is a sense in both instances that Phoenix’s character is learning, with childlike earnestness, to entangle himself in the world.

As C’mon C’mon draws to a heartfelt close, Jesse channels his uncle’s interviewing techniques to record a conversation with himself. “Have you ever thought about the future?” he growls in a faux-deep voice. “Ahh yeah, whatever you plan on happening never happens. Stuff you would never think of happens. So you just have to c’mon, c’mon, c’mon, c’mon, c’mon…” he responds, overlaid by a shot of Johnny and Jesse shrouded in Louisiana foliage, walking in tandem. This stunningly optimistic moment is mirrored in the light that swallows Joe and Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov) in their final moments in a diner. In neither case is a positive connection sought out, so much as collapsed into.

Being alone is not necessarily the worst case scenario, but actively pursuing loneliness in the face of real connection is. This seems to be the thematic conclusion of this stage in Phoenix’s career, and as an actor he has sacrificed his body in service of this message. If his tricky, twisted performance in Beau Is Afraid, and the stills from Joker sequel Folie à Deux (suggesting a grander scale for the first film’s muddled musings on the subject) are to be believed, this will continue to define his work going forward. Eventually this may color his legacy in obvious and nuanced hues. 

Once derided as an example of the obvious, M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village covertly provides Phoenix the most thoughtful stage to embody these ideas. As Lucius, he is restrained by a heavy silence that clouds him, sitting between him and his fellow villagers with the weight and heft of a tangible object. Ivy (Bryce Dallas Howard) senses this and gives this imposing presence a color—real qualities that render their relationship meaningful. Midway through the film, Lucius is silenced and made immovable, the result of living somewhere insulated where anger has nowhere to go, and must reverberate around in violent patterns. Shyamalan closes the film with an unbroken scene of people gathered around his bed, heralding Ivy’s return. It is the director’s most potent consideration on faith—specifically on who is worthy of putting our faith in. By the end of The Village, it is clear that this film doesn’t just service the director’s legacy, but functions as a response to the impenetrable loneliness running through Phoenix’s body of work. “I’m back, Lucius” Ivy whispers; a plea to respond and a call to action.

London-based film writer Anna McKibbin loves digging into classic film stars and movie musicals. Find her on Twitter to see what she is currently obsessed with.

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