By Brian Lafferty
September 13, 2010 (San Diego)--“I don’t want to play the character of Joaquin Phoenix anymore,” says Phoenix, the subject of this documentary. “I want to be whatever I am.” That is his explanation for why he chose to give up acting in favor of a rap music career. I’m Still Here, helmed by Phoenix’s brother-in-law Casey Affleck, is a film that you simply cannot prepare for. There are many images you will never unthink. These are not criticisms; as hard as it was to watch, I liked it. I didn’t necessarily enjoy it as I normally would. The documentary sets out and accomplishes what it wants to do and conveys what it wants to communicate. It doesn’t work as entertainment but then maybe that wasn’t the point.
In past reviews I’ve made reference to the term cinema verite. I’m Still Here has provided an opportunity for me to explain it. Short version: cinema verite aims to capture as close to possible the realism of everyday life. It doesn’t one-hundred percent reproduce it but it still feels real.
Affleck’s filmic approach to I’m Still Here is simple and exemplifies cinema verite. He takes a digital video camera and records the events as they unfold. Most of the footage looks muddy but you can be rest assured that the projectionist is doing his job. He uses only the light available in the shot, which can range from bright sunlight to only one or two lamps. By comparison, most films and documentaries take time to light each camera set-up so that we can see everything clearly and because it would look more visually appealing.
This is by no means a knock. It quickly becomes clear that in order to capture the people in the moment that image quality is the first casualty.
Much has been made over whether the whole thing is a hoax. After watching I’m Still here, I have a hard time believing it is. The mere mention of such a notion offends him. Although his music isn’t very good, he approaches it very seriously. The biggest indication comes towards the end, following his infamous appearance on David Letterman.
But then if the whole thing is a hoax, it is a very elaborate one and would make me understand why Phoenix is a two-time Oscar nominee.
This is not a flattering portrait. Phoenix is constantly stoned and at one point he even does what appears to be lines of cocaine. In one scene he brings two hookers (faces obscured) to his apartment. His speech is slurred, he’s overweight, and his often unkempt hair and beard would make him a fine candidate for a Grizzly Adams biopic.
The movie works on a gut-wrenching level. Over the course of the year, Phoenix gets worse and worse. He makes fatal mistake after fatal mistake and no matter how hard he tries, he cannot get his life together. In a lot of ways it reminded me of Val Kilmer’s performance in Oliver Stone’s The Doors.
The downfall and debauchery is frighteningly played in a low-key manner. It is real to the point of being surreal. Hoax or not, I’m Still Here is still a very provocative movie. It is hard to watch, but even harder to look away.