You Were Never Really Here Written & directed by Lynne Ramsay
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Judith Roberts, Ekaterina Samsonov, John Doman, Alex Manette Amazon Studios
Release Date: April 6, 2018
It seems like he is merely existing. His beard, unkempt with tinges of gray in it, is slowly beginning to swallow his face. He looks drastically out of shape. We see him prowling around at night with no oomph in his step. He’s simply there, probably wishing he wasn’t. More than likely he’s been faltering for a long time now just waiting to fade away, overwhelmed by a past that has crippled him mentally and sucked a good chunk of life out of him physically. His name is Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) and he’s a gun…or should I say hammer for hire.
Seven years since her previous directorial feat, Lynne Ramsay returns with an explosive film that is inquisitive to take an interest in the life of a man whose conscious never dissipates and constantly recalling the haunts that he experienced throughout his entire life. We Need to Talk About Kevin was her last film. Like that film, You Were Never Really Here, which Ramsay adapted from Jonathan Ames’ novella, retains that film’s infatuation with attempting to simply look and be aware of what a character is mentally enduring and not begin to know or comprehend what they’re enduring.
It is difficult to establish inner turmoils and anguish. You always want a film to go deeper and beyond surface level. That’s why this film is an achievement. It’s astonishing how Ramsay is able to place us inside Joe’s head that is pulsating with ruthless agression (Phoenix’s engaging and intimidating performance helps as well).
Instead of treading all too familiar waters by recollecting Joe’s past chronologically so that audiences get acquainted with his painful existence, Ramsey and editor Joe Bobi implement sharp jagged jump-cuts, which last only a few seconds, of the particular pains that help make Joe the unhappy man that he is.
These quick flashbacks contain either young girls in dire circumstances usually involved in sex rings, kids engaging in murder in Iraq, or helplessly witnessing his mother being abused by his father as a child. These are events he experienced but was unable to prevent. Almost as if he wasn’t really there. We learn that he was an ex-Marine and law enforcement officer, which explains his penchant for now being a vigilante. He’s stared catastrophe in the eye before unable to prevent anything. Now, he wants to put an absolute end to it.
The first 30-40 minutes of this film are beautiful. It’s in no rush to attack its prime narrative immediately. Ramsay allows her film to percolate a bit, beholding gentle moments between Joe and his mother (Judith Roberts) whom he lives with, takes care of, and helps shine her fine china while singing songs and discussing the film Psycho with her. After, he will stroll the streets and usually locks eyes with random girls who trigger his flashbacks. They remind him of his past failures and maybe future mishaps.
Once exposed to Joe’s daily routine and his nightmares, the remainder of the film’s plot is akin to Taxi Driver’s as it attempts to explore a corrupt underworld that keeps getting larger and uglier the deeper Joe goes. Johnny Greenwood’s discordant soundtrack heightens the remorse tenfold, paving the way for the film’s haunting and ghostly trajectory.
Joe is hired by a private investigator (John Dohman) who works for a New York senator (Alex Manette) to locate the senator’s young daughter (Ekaterina Samsonov) who has been missing. Through an anonymous tip she’s believed to be working in a Manhattan brothel inside a lavish townhouse. “Inflict as much pain as possible,” the investigator tells Joe. No problem. But it doesn’t turn out to be that simple as Joe unearths an even seedier side of existence he didn’t think was possible to exist.
One of Ramsay’s cinematic flourishes involves Joe’s carrying out of this pain. Hardly does the camera stay and watch Joe annihilate the New York scum (the rich and politically involved) with his hammer. His weapon of choice. We usually catch the aftermath of a hammer blow Joe so assuredly delivers, seeing his victim fall to the ground rather than the actual blow itself.
The majority of films focusing on this kind of material, and there are a lot, find it difficult to discern distinguishing qualities allowing them to stand out. What You Were Never Really Here triumphs at is its shedding of a preoccupation with dispensing an abundance of sadomasochism in exchange for something more enigmatic and unique. Ramsay intentionally neglects to show us Joe’s acts of violence and even the violence inflicted upon the innocent girls because she realizes that the true malady resides after such acts are committed and lingers for years. For the victims they’re done for, but for Joe and the girls pain hardly subsides as life goes on.