Is Joaquin Phoenix the best actor in the world?

With the torrent of encomium pouring in for his startling portrait of urban desolation in <i>Joker</i>, Joaquin Phoenix who lost 15 pounds is being seen as the new Marlon Brando of Hollywood cinema

Joaquin Phoenix (Photo courtesy: Twitter)
Joaquin Phoenix (Photo courtesy: Twitter)

Subhash K Jha

It’s not just about Joker. Phoenix’s transformation in every role is, to say the least, startling. In his previous film Sisters Brothers which I’ve seen, Joaquin plays an assassin in the Wild West. I had a tough time trying to find the actor in the character. An even harder time in the film Joaquin did in 2018, the underrated Don’t Worry He Won’t Get Far On Foot where he played a crippled alcoholic cartoonist. The three levels of incapability (have you tried making a living out of making cartoons?) were portrayed by Joaquin with such ease and fluency that I forgot he was playing a character.

With Joaquin it is more like a character playing the actor. You look frantically for shreds  of Joaquin in the tormented people he plays on screen and that included Jesus Christ in 2018’s Mary Magdalene where Roony Mara played the title role. Joaquin was mesmeric as Christ, perhaps the best Christ I’ve seen on screen, barring perhaps Willem Dafoe in the Last Temptation Of Christ.

But if you really want to see Joaquin’s transformative powers in the course of one film, watch him in 2017’s You Were Never Really Here where he played a hired assassin who  takes on the task of protecting  a teenage girl from traffickers.

While physically Joaquin was quite the antithesis in the two roles in Joker and You Were  Never Really Here, emotionally the two characters are perplexing in their likeness. They are both dysfunctional distressed human beings searching for a relevance to their life and finding nothing but a bottomless void.

Life serves both the characters lemons and they don’t know how to make lemonade out of them. Joaquin’s assassin Joe in You Were Never Really Here leads a joyless sun-blocked life looking after his old demented mother. Ditto Joker  where  Arthur’s existence is choked by his lack of social interaction beyond his ailing delusional deceptive mother.

It’s mother and doom all over again. Strange how Joaquin can make two dysfunctional characters with a mother problem seem so different from one another!

It is surprising that no one has noticed Joker’s kinship to Norman Bates, the sociopath in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 classic Psycho. Like Norman, Arthur in Joker suffers from an Oedipal complex.

Back then Normal Bates was called a sociopath. Today Arthur in Joker is being seen as a product of our times. A Trump travesty that can’t be defined as an anomaly. Arthur/Joker is a metaphor for the ravaged tormented civilization we have created for future generations. And that an actor as accomplished and popular as Joaquin Phoenix plays him endorses Arthur’s trigger-happy solution to loneliness and humiliation.

But imagine, if we all start gunning down people every time we feel lonely and humiliated the planet would look so barren on top of its growing bleakness.

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