Seventeen years ago this month, I interviewed Joaquin Phoenix, then a scrawny 21, whose unwillingness to talk indicated an understandable mistrust of the media in the wake of his elder brother River’s death two years before. In one way, it’s difficult to reconcile that fidgety kid, as knowing as he was guarded, with the actor whose performance in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master” is one of the greatest of the century so far – up there with Daniel Day-Lewis’s in Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood.” And yet Phoenix’s incoherent, self-conscious Freddie Quell, who manifests his psychic damage in sex and violence, which amount to a heroic stand against the repressive control of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd, is completely in keeping with the role Phoenix had just played when I met him.
His sniggering urchin, who is seduced by Nicole Kidman’s wannabe TV personality into murdering her dumb Guido husband (Matt Dillon) in Gus Van Sant’s “To Die For,” was a revelatory portrait of youthful white-trash atavism and Oedipal acting-out – Phoenix made Jimmy Emmett the most sympathetic character in the movie. For all of her manipulation of him – blowjobs come at a price – Kidman’s Suzanne Stone is clearly turned on by him, hence her spontaneous sexual dance in front of her car’s headlights.
Strungout World War II naval vet and department store photographer Freddie is marginally more cultured than Jimmy, but he could be the punk’s grandfather. Both need the love of a tender woman, but Suzanne is a monster, and the teenage sweetheart Freddie leaves at home, thinking she’ll wait for him, becomes his ghost. It’s the unassuageable loss of her, far more than his war trauma, that drives him into Dodd’s sinister embrace. His fealty to Dodd is, of course, prompted by father-figure worship. His rebellion against him, however haphazard, is the act of a man who has regressed into a teenager – and it's essential to his liberation.
Phoenix denounced rote Hollywood fare when we talked – “I’m not desperate to do shit” – and is having an atypical career that bravely eschews likeability. He was relishably repulsive as the Roman emperor in “Gladiator,” convincingly venal as a black-marketeering American serviceman in 1989 Berlin in “Buffalo Soldiers,” deeply unpleasant – and very understandable – as the enraged, grieving father in the hit-and-run drama “Reservation Road.” In "Walk the Line," he made sense of Johnny Cash's inner commotion, attributable to guilt over the early sawmill death of his brother. Phoenix must have identified with that role.
He has also been responsible for a formidable, career-jeopardizing piece of hoodwinking performance art – as the sullen, incommunicative “Joaquin Phoenix” on “Letterman” and in “I’m Still Here.” Should his “Master” work bring him a deserved Oscar, it would almost be a case of rising from the ashes. But who knows if he gives a fuck?