You Were Never Really Here

The eternal angst of Joaquin Phoenix

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here is as uncompromising as films get, a kind of concentrated trip through the violent thoughts and actions of a seriously disturbed man who also happens to be the hero.

He also happens to be played by Joaquin Phoenix. See “uncompromising” above; his performances practically define the term. Ramsay (We Need to Talk About Kevin) packs a lot of movie into the 90-minute running time, wasting nothing. It doesn’t feel rushed. Instead, it feels harrowing, scarily immersive, packed with information, but information you have to work for, think about, want to uncover. It’s a really good film, but it’s certainly not an easy one to watch.

Phoenix plays Joe. We first see him cleaning blood and gore in a seedy motel. There is a woman in the room but we don’t know if she is dead or alive or whether Joe killed her.

Or saved her.

Ramsay only gives us what we need, and sometimes not even that. Perfectly framed shots reveal a little that adds up to a lot. Joe, it turns out, is a military veteran who takes off-the-books jobs finding and, his clients hope, rescuing missing people. Or maybe it’s just missing girls. Again, details are hazy.

They’re hazy to Joe sometimes, too. He is one of those people of whom it truly can be said that he has seen a lot. And from the looks of the flashbacks that haunt him, not much of it good. He suffers visions of his own childhood silently. He does everything silently. He is an irresistible force marching headlong into his work, which he performs with brutish economy—his weapon of choice is a hammer.


You know how in some movies the good guy, when storming a stronghold where, let’s say, rich people enslave young girls for sex, might utter a quip or two to the bodyguard before taking him out with some kind of martial-arts move? You Were Never Really Here is the kind of movie in which Joe says nothing, and we don’t even see his hammer work onscreen; instead we see its brutal aftermath in the shifting screens of a security camera. Again, efficient. Again—shudder.

When he’s done with work, Joe goes home, where he lives with his aging mother (Judith Roberts). He could be an electrician or a bus driver or an accountant.

Except he’s not. (Also, his mom watches Psycho on TV.)

Albert Votto (Alex Manette), a New York state senator, summons him. Votto’s daughter, Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), has run away; he fears the worst, and seems to have reason to. Votto doesn’t want to involve the police, and he is not shy about what he wants should Joe discover that she’s been abducted: “I want you to hurt them.”

An ugly scenario only gets uglier—and, frankly, less believable. But that doesn’t really matter. While there are literal crimes taking place here, and Joe is really trying to rescue Nina, Ramsay also slips Joe into what may be visions, or hallucinations, or simply flights of fancy. A scene in which Joe, with rocks weighing down his clothes, floats in the waters of a lake, is beautiful and disturbing and may be happening and may not. What’s important is that to Joe, it is. And as we are drawn deeper and deeper into Joe’s mind, it becomes real to us, as well.

This is not to suggest that the movie is a fantasy. There seems to be no doubt that horrendous crimes are happening. It’s just that Joe—and by extension Ramsay—is not a completely reliable narrator. What makes the movie worthwhile, very much so (if not quite enjoyable), is Ramsay letting us discover what is really going on, a choice she commits to until the end.

Phoenix is incredible, totally committed, thought that’s hardly a surprise. A reasonable question to ask is whether the ends justify the means, but there is something about the way he portrays Joe, himself wounded, that makes it clear the answer is yes. I think. I’ll be trying to figure that out for a long time, and that’s a high recommendation.

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