I don’t think anybody would argue against the assertion that Joaquin Phoenix is an incredible actor. In many ways, he is the definitive character actor of contemporary times, taking the mantel from the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, after his tragic death in 2014.
Gladiator, Hotel Rwanda, Walk the Line; Phoenix starred in a string of incredible films in the 2000s before taking a break from acting in 2008 and making his short but sweet foray into hip-hop with 2010’s underrated mockumentary I’m Still Here.
It was upon Phoenix’s return to serious acting in the ’10s that we really saw him flourish and develop into the actor he’d always teased with his flicks in the ’00s. Kicking off his resurgence in Paul Thomas Anderson‘s excellent commentary on Scientology, 2012’s The Master, Phoenix would then go from strength to strength. Afterwards, he starred in everything from Her to You Were Never Really Here before making his award-winning turn in Todd Phillips’ 2019 outing, Joker.
He is currently set to play vertically challenged dictator Napoleon Boneparte in Ridley Scott’s upcoming drama, Napoleon, but we’re yet to get a release date. If his resume is anything to go by, we’re sure his performance will be stellar.
When discussing Joaquin Phoenix’s career, there’s one film that gets constantly overlooked, 2014’s Inherent Vice. The film is perhaps Paul Thomas Anderson’s most underrated outing, a hazy and hilarious adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel of the same name. Backed by an ensemble cast that features Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Katherine Waterston, Reese Witherspoon, Benicio del Toro, Joanna Newsom and more, in the film we’re treated to every side of Phoenix’s acting ability.
Arguably, the main reason the film gets overlooked is the story. It, like the book, follows Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello, a well-meaning but hapless stoner-cum-private investigator in 1970, who becomes embroiled in the Los Angeles underworld, whilst investigating three cases that are linked by the disappearance of his ex-girlfriend and her new wealthy partner.
Fusing the weed-drenched surrealism of The Big Lebowski with the intrigue and setting of Robert Altman’s 1973 adaptation of The Long Goodbye, there’s so much to love about this film. The Jonny Greenwood composed soundtrack, which is comprised of original takes and pieces from the likes of CAN and Neil Young, makes a strong claim for being the best in a Paul Thomas Anderson film. Sorry fans of There Will Be Blood and Licorice Pizza.
However, the standout point of the film has to be Joaquin Phoenix’s performance. It’s hilarious, tear-jerking, sexually charged and introspective, and the positioning of Sportello as a lovelorn stoner, navigating the seedy underworld of LA, gave Phoenix the room to really dig into long untapped emotions.
In terms of the more candid facet of the performance, two scenes really stand out. The first is the ouija board scene. In a flashback, we see Sportello, and his ex-girlfriend Shasta (Waterston) stuck in the middle of a weed drought.
Hippie to the core, they turn to the ouija board as a means of alleviating their need for the green leaf. Here, we see Phoenix doing what he does best. Rapt by mania and on the edge of totally losing it, you’d be forgiven for thinking the fellow on the screen was actually unwell. It then cuts between the past and the present, with Phoenix conveying the emotions of anyone who’s heartbroken – restless, unhappy and yearning for their lost partner, locked in the past like Ouroboros eats its tail.
This is all brilliant, but then it really peaks when it cuts to the scene of Doc and Shasta at the location where the ouija board told them they could find their dope. Running in the rain, set to a previously unheard version of Neil Young‘s ‘Journey Through The Past’, it is one of the most heart-wrenching scenes that Phoenix has ever starred in.
Perfectly conveying the excitement of being in love, it’s drenched in that palpable sense of bittersweetness that we all know so well but can’t quite put our finger on, a testament to his skill. It then fades back to a close up of Sportello’s face, thinking about that day. For us and him, old emotions are dredged up that haven’t been thought about for years.
The second scene is towards the end of the film, as the many threads of the plot are wrapping up. As Greenwood’s track ‘Amethyst’ fades in, we see Sportello at the house of Coy Harlingen (Wilson), a pivotal character for the plot, but we won’t ruin it for you. There’s actually a lot to be said for the onscreen chemistry between Phoenix and Wilson, as it, like the film, is criminally underrated. It’s as their arc closes that we see one of Phoenix’s best moments though.
As Sportello tells Harlingen, “You saved your own life man, now you get to live it”, the camera slowly pans out of the vehicle, and we can only see the left-hand side of Phoenix. As if a raven perched on a branch, he watches Harlingen reunite with his family after the events of the film. The door of the house then opens, and you hear the elated screams of Harlingen’s wife, surprised that her husband has returned from his period of obscurity out on the heath.
Content with what he’s achieved, Sportello slightly turns towards the camera before placing his chin on his chest with his eyes closed, tired but relieved that it’s over. In this singular shot, Phoenix manages to convey all the themes of the film without even showing his whole face. It’s joyous but tinged with melancholy as he heeds that this journey is over. He, like us, is ready for some downtime to process the events of the film.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that the film is wholly deep, as it’s not. Aside from the more profound scenes, Phoenix portrays the otherwise bumbling hippie PI to a fault. Whether it be his mumbled lines, his finger up the FBI or his violent run-in with the Nazis, his performance is stellar. It’s got everything that a cinematic performance should have and more.
It makes a strong claim for being the most rewatchable entry in Phoenix’s filmography to date as he doesn’t bore you with being trapped in one personality; this is a ten-dimensional performance. Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello is a complex man, and aided by the colourful setting, Phoenix was given a vivid palette of paints to bring this unforgettable character to life adroitly.
A wonderful film, featuring one of the most remarkable actors of all time, I think it’s about time Inherent Vice got the respect it deserved.
Watch the trailer below.