In Paul Thomas Anderson’s searing spiritual drama The Master, Joaquin Phoenix delivers the performance of his career as Freddie Quell, a volatile World War II veteran trying to readjust to civilian life after the horrors of battle. He’s a shell-shocked dipsomaniac prone to fits of ultra-violence who falls under the sway of charismatic cult leader Lancaster Dodd (Oscar winner Philip Seymour Hoffman), functioning as the so-called Master’s factotum and default enforcer-bodyguard. And in one scene, when Dodd, who leads a religious movement that writer-director Anderson based on the Church of Scientology, is jailed, Freddie gets thrown into an adjoining cell where he is shown delivering the mother of all film freak-outs.
Still shackled, with his trousers in shreds and radiating off-kilter aggression, Phoenix immediately begins wilding out. He rams his head and back repeatedly into a bunk bed and kicks at the metal bars, sputtering and shaking and uttering F-bomb after F-bomb. Then he turns his wrath on the cell’s toilet, hate-stomping it off of the wall in a frenzy of porcelain-smashing rage.
The actor reportedly studied online videos of animals in captivity to inform this out of control behavior but didn’t set out to kill the commode. “I didn’t intend to break the thing,” Phoenix told The New York Times. “I didn’t know that was possible.”
With his vivid portrayal of a wild, unhinged basket case, Phoenix has managed a singular feat: remedying the public perception of himself as a wild, unhinged basket case after spending more than a year pretending to be a wild, unhinged basket case for his last movie I’m Still Here: The Lost Year of Joaquin. In The Master, the actor basically goes what the movie Tropic Thunder called “full retard” to resurrect his career.
Moviegoers are already showing an appetite for seeing Phoenix in full freak mode. As of Sunday, The Master had opened at just five locations but was on track to gross a stunning $750,000 with a per screen average of $146,000, which would make it the strongest limited release opening weekend debut ever logged. The movie will open in theaters across the country in the coming weeks. And on the strength of its showings at the Venice Film Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival, Phoenix is an early frontrunner for a Best Actor Oscar nod.
Such a scenario would have been inconceivable in the fevered months of 2008 and 2009 when the two-time Academy Award nominee appeared to unravel. Although he now calls his behavior during that period a practical joke, at the time Phoenix seemed hell-bent on dismantling his reputation in the film industry.
The drumbeat of his apparent insanity began in 2008, around press tour for his indie drama Two Lovers. “This will be my last performance as an actor,” a disheveled-looking Phoenix said at a red carpet event for the movie. “I’m not doing films anymore.”
By January of the following year, his efforts to distance himself from cinema grew more outlandish. Amateur video of Phoenix’s career rebirth as a kind of impressionistic hip-hop star began to surface online. In one, he appears to tumble drunkenly off a stage post-performance, in another a wild-haired Phoenix is shown jumping into a crowd to attack a Miami heckler.
Casey Affleck, his brother-in-law, assiduously recorded Phoenix’s train-wreck hip-hop odyssey for the documentary project that many in Hollywood had begun to suspect was a sustained, Andy Kaufman-esque prank. But Phoenix’s February 2009 appearance on Late Night With David Letterman still managed to shock and confound cultural critics. Impassive behind wraparound sunglasses and looking bloated, the actor was unresponsive for much of the interview, all one-word answers and awkward pauses, before deciding to stick his gum on the talk show host’s desk as the cameras rolled. “Joaquin, I’m sorry you couldn’t be here tonight,” Letterman joked as the segment ended.
In I’m Still Here, Phoenix snorts what appears to be cocaine off a hooker’s boobs, smokes copious amounts of marijuana, and bellows an awful approximation of rap. Distributed by Magnolia Pictures in September 2010, the quasi-documentary grossed a pathetic $400,000 at the domestic box office. But more damningly, Phoenix’s professional reputation took a hit and the job offers dried up in its wake. “For some time, people didn’t know if [the gag] was continuing in some way. I would go in for meetings and they were not sure if I was [messing] with them or not,” Phoenix told the Los Angeles Times. “There was a noticeable drop in quality from things I had looked at before I’m Still Here. I thought, Wow, I’ve certainly limited myself in terms of the kind of work I can do. I can still get a job. But it’s not the job I want to get.”
Yet the year and a half spent making I’m Still Here directly informed Phoenix’s critically hailed performance in The Master—a dramatic turn for which he stayed in character for the production’s duration, lost a drastic amount of weight, and is depicted variously guzzling moonshine made of paint thinner, sexually fondling a sand castle, and lumbering across sets mysteriously clutching his kidneys.
On the promotional circuit, he has spoken about how appearing onstage, unsure of an audience’s reaction to his “Joaquin Phoenix rap star” character, freed him to deliver the most physically unshackled performance of his career in Anderson’s movie, going for “things that might seem absurd or stupid or don’t make sense or are obviously, quote-unquote, out of character.”
So is Phoenix finally ready to drop the basket-case act and play nice in Hollywood?
Notoriously aloof with the press, he dutifully assented to a number of interviews in support of The Master in Toronto and Venice, where he shared best actor honors with Hoffman. He also has a couple of new movies wrapped and waiting in the wings: Her, directed by Spike Jonze, in which Phoenix plays a writer in love with his computer’s operating system; and Nightingale, a dark drama directed by James Gray (who previously directed Phoenix in Two Lovers, We Own the Night, and The Yards) that also stars Marion Cotillard and Jeremy Renner.
To hear him tell it, Phoenix is at peace with coming off like a wild, unhinged basket case for the past few years. “Part of why I was frustrated with acting was because I took it so seriously,” he told Time magazine. “Once I became a total buffoon, it was so liberating.”