More recently, Phoenix starred as an emotionally-stunted uncle in Mike Mills' critically-acclaimed C'mon C'mon. Quite rightly, this performance earned the actor a lot of praise and pushed him further into the spotlight. With media attention being on his most coveted movies, this article highlights those that might've slipped under the radar.
Directed by Gus Van Sant, To Die For is a dark comedy based on the 1992 Joyce Maynard book of the same name. Inspired by the story of Pamela Smart — an American woman who recruited her underage lover to kill her husband — it follows aspiring TV personality Suzanne Stone (Nicole Kidman); a narcissist who will stop at nothing to achieve her dream, venturing so far as murder.
In this movie, Phoenix plays high-schooler Jimmy Emmett, who, along with his classmates, Russell (Casey Affleck) and Lydia (Alison Folland), is coerced by Suzanne into murdering her husband. Jimmy is a multi-faceted character; a delinquent on the surface, he is a sensitive soul at heart. Suzanne takes advantage of this by seducing the teenager and, as in Smart’s story, it is him who ultimately commits the crime. Kidman was nominated for a BAFTA for her performance as the manipulative clout-chaser, and through Jimmy, Phoenix established himself as a master of morally ambiguous characters.
The Master is a psychological drama written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. Set in post-WWII America, it follows Freddie Quell (Phoenix), a war veteran who is suffering from PTSD. Drifting in life, one night, Freddie ends up on the boat of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the leader of a Scientology-esque cult called "The Cause." Accepted into the movement, Freddie becomes a devoted follower of Lancaster whilst others question the latter's motives.
Phoenix is thrilling as the unpredictable, emotionally unstable Freddie, and Hoffman is equally great as his smug superior. Both were nominated for Academy Awards for their performances, and a look at the "processing" scene would explain why. Here — in a moment that is as terrifying as it is hypnotic to watch — Lancaster asks Freddie a number of difficult, intrusive questions to provoke a response. Freddie remains stoic at first, answering confidently: "Yes," No," but when Lancaster begins asking about a past girlfriend, his barriers come down and audiences witness the man fall apart in front of their eyes.
Also written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, Inherent Vice is a neo-noir crime movie based on the 2009 Thomas Pynchon book of the same name. Set in 1970s California, it follows private detective and stoner Larry "Doc" Sportello (Phoenix) whose former lover Shasta (Katherine Waterston) is in trouble. As it transpires, Shasta's current boyfriend, Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts) has a wife, and that wife may be plotting to institutionalize him. When Shasta and Mickey go missing, Doc discovers he has his work cut out for him.
Inherent Vice was nominated for two Academy Awards: Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Costume Design. It was well-liked by critics and gained mixed reviews from audiences. Many likened watching the movie to being on drugs themselves, and whilst some enjoyed the adrenalized trip, others complained they were too confused. Still, nobody could argue Inherent Vice — or Anderson — isn't original. Only recently, his newest seventies-inspired flick, Licorice Pizza, was nominated for several Academy Awards.
Directed by Lynne Ramsay, and based on the 2013 Jonathan Ames book of the same name, You Were Never Really Here is a neo-noir thriller about a traumatized mercenary named Joe (Phoenix) who saves trafficked girls for a living. When Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), the daughter of New York State Senator Albert Votto (Alex Manette) goes missing, it's Joe's job to find her, and he will go to any lengths to do it.
Of all the psychologically disturbed characters Phoenix has played, Joe takes the cake. Suffering from PTSD and suicidal ideation, Joe understands pain and the proof is on his face. With his overgrown beard, and cold, detached stare, he is frightening to look at, but a softie at heart. And in the midst of darkness, there is beauty to be found in his friendship with Nina, who saves him as much as he saves her.
Comedy-drama Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot is Phoenix's second movie with director Gus Van Sant. Here, Phoenix plays cartoonist John Callahan whose memoir of the same name inspired the movie. An alcoholic, one evening John ends up in a drunk-driving accident which leaves him quadriplegic. Reevaluating his life, he attends Alcoholics Anonymous, befriends his sponsor, Donnie (Jonah Hill), and falls in love with his physical therapist, Annu (played by Phoenix's real-life partner Rooney Mara).
Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot is not the typical biopic; whilst it's heartfelt and inspirational, it's never too corny. The story itself is gritty, and Phoenix does a great job of portraying John's struggles without romanticising them. He may be a tortured artist, but that's not his brand. Despite his extraordinary story, he's just a person — and one to root for. A highlight of the movie is John's burgeoning friendship with Jonah Hill's character, Donnie. Hill is outstanding in this movie, and (fairly) credits his performance as the best in his career.