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Why Joaquin Phoenix is the Most Fascinating Actor Working in Film Today

By Diana Drumm | Indiewire October 18, 2013 at 10:00AM

Sporting his "Inherent Vice" shoulder-length hairstyle and half-laced up boots, Joaquin Phoenix cut an intriguing figure at this year's New York Film Festival.
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During a climactic scene, Samantha disappears from all of Theodore's electronic devices and he, not knowing what to do, instinctively runs through streets of "Los Angeles" for help, presumably to his office or the offices of Samantha's manufacturer. In the middle of his mad dash, Theodore falls to the ground, gets up, and then keeps running until Samantha finally pops back on the screen, explaining that she had merely gone down for maintenance. In this crazed run, Phoenix captures Theodore's deep, innate passion for Samantha and his great fear of ever losing her. Oddly enough (at least in the eyes of this viewer), this scene evokes Bernardo Bertolucci's "Last Tango in Paris," in which middle-aged widower Paul (Marlon Brando) chases after young Jeanne (Maria Schneider) through the streets of Paris, fearing that he may have lost her. In most respects outside of this one moment, the two films are antithetical of each other with "Last Tango in Paris" being about a purely (or impurely) physical relationship whereas Theodore and Samantha's romance transcends physical being.

Joaquin Phoenix Her

What binds them is the utter emotional desperation of the male lead in pursuit of his romantic interest, portrayed with such unequivocal, heartbreaking authenticity by Marlon Brando and Joaquin Phoenix. Eerily, both relationships come to an end after these pursuits, but in very different ways. Paul becomes too effusive and ruins what there was between him and Jeanne, leading to the demise of him and their relationship. While Theodore confronts Samantha on the status of their relationship, to which she admits not only to talking with thousands of other people, but being in love with hundreds of them (kind of puts the woman from Johnny Cash's "Cocaine Blues" in warped perspective -- "I thought I was her daddy, but she had five more"). Somehow through the mystery of life, Jonze's sentimental lens and the transformative believability of Phoenix's performance, Theodore comes to terms with this and, after Samantha leaves permanently, accepts their relationship as a cherished period of time, but not his whole life, with his memories and their song as a bittersweet souvenir.

Both as Bruno and Theodore, Joaquin Phoenix reflects on the depth of human emotion, particularly the bizarre notion of love. Bruno and Theodore tap into the core of the audience's hearts, to varying degrees and destructive tendencies, but both make it out with redeeming qualities (Bruno letting Ewa go, Theodore resolving his past issues with women). With these two magnificent performances under his belt for 2013, Phoenix may try to shy away from the press like a majestic mythical creature (with E-cigarette smoke tumbling out of nostrils, resembling something of a dragon), but these performances have touched and will continue to touch the hearts of audiences worldwide, possibly even awards voters. Whether you think he's utterly bizarre or the finest actor of his generation or a wonderful combination of both, there's no doubt that Joaquin Phoenix and his instinctive acting will continue to mesmerize onscreen.

This article is related to: Joaquin Phoenix, NYFF, NYFF Critics Academy , New York Film Festival, The Immigrant, The Master