The untimely death of Heath Ledger—part of the burgeoning new academic inquiry called Jokerology—is one of the several morbid topics I like to keep up-to-date on. As the anniversary of Ledger’s passing approaches on the 22nd of this month, here is a list of strange coincidences, connections, and resonances related to the actor and his most famous role.
I had originally wrote a version of this post in 2013—when the topic of “Doomsday Preppers” (such as Sandy Hook shooter Adam Lanza’s mom) was all over the news, and the 1993 movie Dark Blood was finally getting released (albeit in a somewhat incomplete form). Given that the subject of armed militias in the United States has been given a new spotlight in regards to the folks in Oregon and the presidential election next week, this topic seems ripe for a revisit.
River Phoenix’s last film, Dark Blood is about a disaffected young man named “Boy” who lives by himself in a survivalist bunker in the desert, surrounded by weapons and assorted “voodoo”/occult items. A hapless couple lost in the area stumbles across Boy, and predictably all hell breaks loose.
This movie was made around the same time of a number of Federal sieges on “compounds” such as the Branch Davidians (1993) and Ruby Ridge (1992). So in a sense Phoenix’s character Boy is the analogue for this sort of situation.
River Phoenix’s own childhood was mired in what could be considered cult-like, his parents pressing the children into the hippie-like Children of God cult. The Children of God (Family International) were established in 1968 by David Berg, lived in isolated communes, and purported to be living out the “authentic” form of Christianity that Jesus had intended—compare to David Koresh’s Branch Davidians at Waco.
CoG was also involved in the controversial practice of “Flirty Fishing,” in which women were instructed to seek out more converts by offering them sex. While Phoenix’s parents later stated that they were opposed to this practice—you have to wonder how all of this CoG stuff impacted the young boy mentally.
“The family had had prophet problems before: They’d actually left the Children of God because its leader, David Brant Berg, began encouraging the women in his flock to seduce potential converts—a tactic known as “flirty fishing”—and proudly referred to them as hookers for Jesus. Berg also advocated incest and sex with toddlers, and mailed circulars with graphic pictures of molestation. The Phoenixes felt betrayed, and River rarely talked about the sect. ‘They’re disgusting,’ he would say angrily. ‘They’re ruining people’s lives.'”
In his last role as Boy, was Phoenix basically “replaying” a version of his strange childhood? Is Boy the person he could have grown up to be, had Hollywood not entered the picture?
There is also the significance of the name of his last movie: “Dark Blood.” The actor was set to start filming Interview With The Vampire shortly before he died—a role that later went to Christian Slater, who in turn donated his paycheck to two of Phoenix’s favorite charities.
Compare Slater’s actions to how Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell, and Jude Law pitched in for Heath Ledger in The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus. Both Ledger and Phoenix died of drug overdoses.
Time, places, and events seem to repeat itself—to re-cycle and intertwine. Phoenix died in front of Depp’s club The Viper Room on Halloween night. Depp has deep connections with two other tragic “died too young actors,” Brandon Lee (who died the same year as Phoenix) and Heath Ledger.
Phoenix, Lee, and Kurt Cobain—young idols who all died within a year of each other. Ruby Ridge and Waco—also within a year of each other. All in the same time period.
Dark Blood finally gets seen for the first time between 2012/2013. During that period, we get the Aurora “Joker” shootings, Sandy Hook, and a rash of other “lone nut” tragedies. Indeed, it seems like a horrific “renaissance” of the mass shooter—various permutations of the disaffected loner, like the character Phoenix played in his last role.
Then the names Ruby Ridge and Waco were once again invoked in relation to this year’s standoff at Malheur (which translated from French means “misfortune” and “tragedy”) National Wildlife Refuge in OR; only a few months after the ill-omened Viper Club reopened, complete with tasteless River Phoenix death tribute. From the ashes, so to speak.
None of these “connections” really mean anything…but they sometimes make an interesting collection of things to think about when you have nothing better to do. As is the fact that Christian Slater, who managed to come out of the tumultuous mid-1990s more or less intact, went on to embody the (albeit somewhat aging) spirit of Nineties anarchism in the TV series Mr. Robot.
One last intriguing bit about Dark Blood, again from the Esquire article:
Last fall Phoenix filmed Dark Blood in an area in Utah reputed to be a magnet for alien visitations, which fascinated him (his latest karmic catchphrase was “Thanks be to UFO Godmother”). He told friends he’d been levitated over his bed, and he would sometimes lie on his patio and shout to the heavens, “Take me, I’m ready! What else is out there?”