Watching I’m Still Here is like watching a train wreck. It makes you squirm, it makes you cringe, but no matter what, you can’t look away.
Joaquin Phoenix is one of his generation’s most gifted actors with memorable performances in movies such as Walk the Line, Gladiator, and Signs. His dedication to his craft is apparent in the wonderful results we see on screen. When he played the legendary Johnny Cash, he refused to have someone else sing the songs for him. Instead, he learned, sang, and played guitar on each and every song seen in the film, and did so convincingly. His performance in Gladiator as the Ceasar Commodus, earned him an Academy Award nomination and remains one of the best (and creepiest) portrayals of a Roman Ceaser in cinema history.
Phoenix has experienced wild success, both critically and commercially, from a very young age in his life. So, when he showed up on The Late Show with David Letterman with a scraggly, overgrown beard, unkempt hair, and about fifty extra pounds of weight, the tabloid industry’s head started spinning. What happened to him? Was this just another example of a celebrity losing his grip on reality? A few weeks earlier, he had announced (to much skepticism) that he was quitting professional acting so that he could pursue his dream of becoming a Hip-Hop musical artist. At that point, the world seemed to think it was just a big joke from an eccentric personality. By the time he revealed his new “look” on Letterman, many wondered if he was really telling the truth. It all seemed a little too real to be a lie.
Unfortunately, it was. Phoenix and brother-in-law Casey Affleck spent time together after Phoenix’s wild success in Walk the Line and decided that they wanted to make a movie that exposed the nature of celebrity in our media driven society. To that effect, they decided that they would capitalize on Phoenix’s intense fame at that time to create an entirely different perception of the actor in the media. They would then document this “reaction” and show the world just how low celebrity tabloids would go to sell a story (as well as how the tabloids influence people’s opinions). Out of these ideas came I’m Still Here.
This is probably the most amazing character that Phoenix has played yet in his career. Lots of people have played themselves before in autobiographical movies or documentaries, so there was nothing groundbreaking in that decision. Where the real craft and “wow” factor comes into play with I’m Still Here is in how much Phoenix transformed himself to create the image of a mentally unstable celebrity who falls into a downward spiral with no one around to help him out of it. To play this “character” Phoenix changed himself both physically and mentally. Physically, he gained at least 50 pounds, stopped grooming himself (which can be seen in his constantly growing thick beard and bed head), stopped dressing nicely, and was in a perpetual state of being high. His drug-induced ramblings are both annoying and awkward. Mentally, he seemed to have dropped entirely off the deep end. He no longer cares about acting, seemes to cut himself off from the Hollywood community that helped him achieve his success, and is prone to violent mood swings. In one scene, he punches a close friend when he thinks that this friend has betrayed him. A minute later, he hugs him, swearing that he’s not a violent guy. This type of behavior is present in almost every scene (to varying extremes, of course). The cumulative effect of these scenes leaves a confused viewer in it’s wake. Is it real or is it fake? Phoenix is so convincing and the setups are so seamless (for the most part) that the viewer never really knows what to believe.
The faint of heart should be warned though; this movie is NOT for you! With scenes depicting drug use, crude language, prostitution, full frontal nudity, and human defacation (yes, poop), many viewers probably won’t make it through the entire film. This movie is disturbing because it’s meant to be. Trying to show Phoenix in a downward spiral, while he eats healthy, cuts his hair, and treats everyone with respect would be boring. Instead, Affleck and Phoenix work hard to create a world around Phoenix that seems both seedy and addictive. Though he does not seem powerless to stop the things that are happening to him, it becomes clear that all of his success has created an entourage of “YES” people who are more concerned about latching on to him than about his mental and physical health. It’s revealing stuff that gives you a peak into the greediness that consumes Hollywood.
I’m Still Here will repulse you. It will make you dislike Joaquin Phoenix. It will make you think of Jackass with very fond memories. This is not a safe film. You may walk out of the theater a little scarred and a lot annoyed. But, given some time for reflection, you may also see the message at the bottom of the empty bottle. It’s hard to see through all that beard, but give it a chance and you will.
Rating: 7 out of 10