I’m Still Here
How I wish I could go back in time and see this film before the bomb was dropped on it, before director Casey Affleck was forced to spill the beans that his year-long following of brother-in-law Joaquin Phoenix (who in 2008 announced he was giving up acting to become a rapper) was a hoax. It’s true that one could probably have figured that out without the confirmation (I mean, who would honestly want a filmmaker following them down such a rocky path?), but before the truth was known, the reality of “I’m Still Here” was still in doubt. That said, the film strikes me as oddly MORE impressive now that we know it’s a work of “fiction”–how Phoenix had the discipline to stay in character for a whole year is an astounding high-wire act. The result is an audacious achievement.
In Fall 2008, Joaquin Phoenix had a great career. Twice Oscar-nominated (for “Gladiator” and “Walk the Line”), Phoenix had long been one of Hollywood’s most reliable and risky character actors. But along the way something snapped in him. He wanted out of the grind of acting, of red carpet events, of press junkets and late-night appearances. So one day he announced he was moving on, that he was done with acting. Why he chose to be a rapper remains a mystery, even while watching the film; but whys aren’t really important when you’re headed on a downward spiral complete with sex, drugs, and temper tantrums, and it’s being caught on film. All along rumors of this being an elaborate hoax swirl as Phoenix’s life appears to spin out of control, culminating in a humiliating and publicly-derided appearance on the “Late Show” as he was doing press for “Two Lovers” (which, by the way, is a superb film).
If the film is truly a hoax, Affleck and Phoenix (and those around them) do a fantastic job of keeping a straight face through it all, while painting a portrait of an artist on the brink. There are moments, though, when the film feels right on the edge of documentary, and we genuinely worry about Phoenix’s mental health. Of course everything in the film “happened,” but you can’t deny the realism of some of these moments. I wouldn’t be surprised if Phoenix felt more than a little lost himself throughout the experience, and allowing Affleck (who makes a startling debut as a director) to film every ugly moment of unrest and misunderstanding was a bold decision. Few actors could pull off such a high-wire act between performance and life. But maybe we should have taken the film’s title as Affleck and Phoenix’s way of winking at the camera all along. As an acting role, it very much proves that he is still here.