James Clay // Film Critic
Joaquin Phoenix has been everywhere the past few months after the seemingly ubiquitous film JOKER was released. Whether you praise or heckle his strange turn in clown makeup, the actor has been disappearing in a handful of roles that become a bit crowded when you try to pick a personal favorite.
It’s a bit bewildering to think that he’s been acting in feature films for over thirty years, with his debut in SPACE CAMP back in 1986. Despite being nominated for an Academy Award with GLADIATOR back in 2000, he didn’t truly rise into the public consciousness until his turn as Johnny Cash in 2005’s WALK THE LINE.
From degenerates, legendary singers, family men, to stoner hippies, he always finds an angle to bring something organic to each character he’s embodying. There’s a secret to his work that he guards, and that only brings everything to life. Notoriously private and guarded and quite perhaps a bit eccentric, the actor has done a brilliant job jumping in-between shadows and avoiding the spotlight while still becoming a household name. Naturally, that aversion from the press only sparks more fascination.
This piece isn’t here to pat Phoenix on the back for so many words of affirmation. He already receives. It just felt a bit timely when a couple of deep cuts Blu-ray titles from his filmography recently arrived at my doorstep. Diving into actor’s filmographies to find out what really makes them tick is becoming a personal favorite task to mine when the theatrical landscape is a bit barren.
Of course, Phoenix has a wealth of titles to pick from. With the arrival of RESERVATION ROAD and RETURN TO PARADISE on Blu ray from Mill Creek Entertainment (both available pretty slick double feature combo disc), it was a chance to take a look back and see how far we’ve come.
RESERVATION ROAD (2007) – Essentially what is a two-hander about the opposing sides of a grave tragedy this drama has largely been forgotten or underseen. The subject matter and thematic tension are there in spades. However, the Terry George-directed (HOTEL RWANDA) picture lacks the grit to resonate fully. RESERVATION ROAD isn’t an attempt at exploiting a tragedy; it’s a dissection of what happens when the safe confines of upper-middle-class Connecticut are marred by death. George’s most revered film HOTEL RWANDA did the same but from the perspective of a country where death was inescapable.
Phoenix plays an atypical role as a family man named Ethan, who’s unsure how to grieve after his 10-year-old son was tragically killed in a hit-and-run accident in the opening scene. The perpetrator is Dwight (Mark Ruffalo), a moderately successful lawyer who has made a string of poor decisions in his life, including losing custody of his son. Their lives converge with some plausible and implausible encounters that build to a boil. We see the guilt of a man who suffered a terrible loss and fights to regain justice and control and another who is frightened at the prospect of getting caught he goes to shady and inept lengths to cover his tracks.
At this point in Phoenix’s career, he was playing roles (TWO LOVERS, LADDER 49) that allowed him to be more sympathetic to the audiences before he went off the performative deep end, and Ethan fits right into that mold. Clad with a beard, khakis, and a potbelly, he plays Ethan with a distance that never fully gels with the lofty tone of the film, but there’s something juicy lurking in the surface. A bit schmaltzy in the final act two outstanding performances from Phoenix and Ruffalo doesn’t fully exonerate a deflated final minutes.
RETURN TO PARADISE (1998) – Phoenix isn’t the star of this 1998 thriller by Joesph Rueben, but his presence is felt throughout. Only appearing in the opening moments and a few critical scenes in the final third, his portrayal of an American stuck in a Malaysian prison is startling and showed signs of the unsettling characters that he’s known for today.
This thriller begins with three young ex-pats named Sheriff (Vince Vaughn), Tony (Dave Conrad) and Lewis (Phoenix) loafing around Malaysia smoking hash, sleeping around and trashing bikes. The goal is to hang around until they run out of money and then hightail it back to New York City after sowing their wild oats. It turns out Lewis has different plans in mind as he’s staying to save some endangered orangutans, which is pretty fitting given Phoenix’s own connections to animal activism.
Two years have passed when Sheriff and Tony are approached by an attorney (Anne Heche) representing Lewis. She informs them he will be put to death by the Malaysian judicial system for 100 grams of hash the trio left in their home unless they all “return to paradise” to serve a three-to-six year prison sentence.
What is served up is quite the moral conundrum that makes a satisfying thriller that wobbles a bit when romantic alliances start to come into play. RETURN TO PARADISE is a product of its time that vilifies other judicial systems by othering their culture and using it as a mouthpiece for American oppression. With that being said, Heche, Phoenix, and especially Vaugh, make this sleeper well worth tracking down.
RESERVATION ROAD/RETURN TO PARADISE double feature is available now from Mill Creek Entertainment.