Breaking through this veneer is a tormented man making his way however seedy in a city that has already damned him thanks to his Jewish heritage, which is made painfully clear in his confrontations with cops who he hasn't bribed, (side note, apparently Bruno knows Yiddish, though we never hear Phoenix speak any in the film) and who lost his first love to his blonder, more charming cousin (a James Cagney-meets-Harry Houdini type played by Jeremy Renner). In this light, Bruno doesn't know what to do when he sees Ewa beyond possessing her by the only means he knows, false hope and emotional manipulation. He never forces her to be intimate physically (with him at least) or to care for him emotionally, but settles with the fact that he's merely her means of support and survival.
It's this romantically desolate situation that makes scenes like when Ewa's waiting for him outside of the prison (after him being jailed briefly) and when Bruno overhears a snippet of Ewa's church confession in which she resigns herself to hell and damnation (a.k.a. a life with him) tug all the more at the heartstrings. For those brief shining moments, Bruno believes that Ewa might actually love him. Not as much and insanely as he loves her (tough to compete with stabbing rivals and abrupt moves to Central Park), but something in that vicinity. In those instances, there's a light in Bruno's murky eyes and an air of hope puffing up his hunched shoulders. Phoenix manages to breathe life and humanity into a villain of melodramatic proportions, enough so that we alongside Ewa aren't sure whether we want to leave him in the end, with his grave misdeeds clouded by the muddled reasons behind them.
Phoenix plays a similarly emotionally-muddled character in Spike Jonze's "Her," which made its debut as the NYFF closing night film and is now being considered an Oscar game-changer, due in no small part to Phoenix's performance as a letter ghostwriter who falls headfirst for his computer operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). With his ‘stache, awkward gait, and obvious insecurity, Theodore Twombly is a creepy dude, or so says his blind date (Olivia Wilde). Dealing with a relatively recent separation and wading his way through the dating mine field of a not-too-distant-future Los Angeles, Theodore sparks a connection with his O.S. (a.k.a. Samantha) that blossoms into a full-blown relationship of the minds (illustrated acutely by their "photograph" together being a song composed by Samantha), toeing the lines of metaphysics, existentialism, and what it means to be in love.
In a role that could have easily fallen to the sidelines of creeping (especially if you consider the near-alliteration in Theodore's name could denote a twisting, tongue-in-cheek take on Humbert Humbert), Phoenix gives Theodore a depth that reaches the breadth of any audience. Whether you've loved and lost or are merely grasping at love, Theodore embodies that vulnerable essence of humanity inside all of us, thanks to Phoenix being "all instinct" in his central performance (as Jonze explained to Mark Harris), and Johansson being able to portray Samantha's emotional and outer-body (or outer-non-body?) awakening solely through her voice. Merely with the thought of Samantha (as she never gains a body or an avatar of her own), Theodore goes through the entire spectrum of a romantic relationship from the giddiness of discovery to the doldrums of routine to suspicions spiraling from both ends. Theodore recognizes and accepts the absurdity of being in love with a computer operating system and we, the audience, follow him full-heartedly, suspending our natural disbelief through his travails of hope, love and heartache.