Defying expectations with an atypical thriller, Lynne Ramsay creates a surprising character study that benefits from a stellar performance by Joaquin Phoenix

You Were Never Really Here

You Were Never Really Here (2017)

Writ­ten and di­rect­ed by Lynne Ram­say, based on the nov­el by Jonathan Ames. Star­ring Joaquin Phoenix, Eka­te­ri­na Sam­sonov, Alex Manette, John Do­man, Ju­dith Roberts and Alessan­dro Nivola.

Joaquin Phoenix is an ac­tor who nev­er ceas­es to sur­prise me with each new film and nu­ance in his per­for­mances. Ver­sa­tile like few oth­ers of his gen­er­a­tion, he gives life to types that can be com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent from one an­oth­er — like the ag­gres­sive, self-hat­ing Fred­die Quell from The Mas­ter (2012), the sweet and lone­ly ro­man­tic Theodore Twombly in Her (2013), or the hip­pie ston­er PI Lar­ry “Doc” Sportel­lo from In­her­ent Vice (2014). This time, in You Were Nev­er Re­al­ly Here, Phoenix gives us an­oth­er mas­ter­class in act­ing range with a char­ac­ter that doesn’t speak so much and yet lets us see a bro­ken soul in each move, line or out­burst of violence.

Adapt­ed by the tal­ent­ed Scot­tish di­rec­tor Lynne Ram­say (We Need to Talk About Kevin) from Jonathan Ames’ book of the same name (which I’ve nev­er read), You Were Nev­er Re­al­ly Here may sound at first like a new Taxi Dri­ver (1976) or Tak­en (2008), but don’t be fooled by the cov­er. The point of the film is not to ex­plore lone­li­ness-dri­ven ur­ban in­san­i­ty like the for­mer or to be an es­capist re­venge flick like the lat­ter, but to be some­thing quite dif­fer­ent — both in terms of its the­mat­ic am­bi­tions and the way it de­fies what you would nor­mal­ly ex­pect from a thriller.

The plot fol­lows Gulf-War vet­er­an and for­mer FBI agent Joe (Phoenix), who suf­fers from PTSD and em­ploys his bru­tal ways to res­cue kid­napped girls as a hired gun. While car­ing for his frail el­der­ly moth­er in his child­hood home in New York, he is tor­ment­ed by vi­o­lent mem­o­ries of his child­hood and his past in the mil­i­tary. But when Joe is hired to res­cue the ab­duct­ed 13-year-old daugh­ter of a New York State Sen­a­tor who is of­fer­ing him a large sum of mon­ey, he gets pulled into a hell­ish con­spir­a­cy in­volv­ing cor­rupt politi­cians and fed­er­al agents — a sit­u­a­tion which, in turn, of­fers him the pos­si­bil­i­ty of re­demp­tion or per­haps a way out of his grow­ing insanity.

De­pict­ed as a sullen, un­kempt man whose emo­tions seem to be con­stant­ly at a boil­ing point, Joe is shown to be strict­ly ob­jec­tive when per­form­ing the jobs he is hired for: we see him clean­ing up a ho­tel room, eras­ing all ev­i­dence and mak­ing sure no one can tell what ever hap­pened there. Lat­er, a call from the air­port to his client (“It’s done”) con­cludes the im­per­son­al busi­ness. But from then on, we also be­gin to un­der­stand that Joe is as dam­aged as John Ram­bo, prone to self-as­phyx­i­a­tion with a plas­tic bag (which would in­di­cate trau­ma from abuse) and tor­ment­ed by a dark past that in­sists on in­vad­ing his mind in oc­ca­sion­al flashbacks.

You Were Nev­er Re­al­ly Here draws a com­plex pic­ture of a frag­ment­ed mind (no­tice how Joe even tears off pages from a book while read­ing it back­wards) and is el­e­vat­ed by an in­tel­li­gent di­rec­tion. Opt­ing to show us the af­ter­math of vi­o­lent scenes (due to bud­get con­straints), Ram­say of­ten keeps the ac­tu­al vi­o­lence off­screen, like when we wit­ness a mas­sacre through black-and-white sur­veil­lance cam­eras to the sound of el­e­va­tor mu­sic. As we move from one cam­era to the next, Joe is al­ways “caught” when he is al­ready leav­ing a body be­hind — and Ramsay’s sub­tle­ty is re­mark­able, es­pe­cial­ly as we no­tice the Senator’s daughter’s di­lat­ed pupils afterward.

While the ho­tel room where Joe hides the girl elic­its dis­com­fort with a bleak, cold palette, the fight that fol­lows be­tween him and a cor­rupt cop is made ex­cru­ci­at­ing­ly tense as Ram­say keeps the cam­era as close as pos­si­ble to the two men. And if she is able to un­set­tle us with squirmish mo­ments like the view of a tooth be­ing pulled out, she bal­ances those scenes with a great deal of ten­der­ness when Joe holds hands with a dy­ing killer or has a vi­sion un­der­wa­ter — not to men­tion how she makes us care about Joe’s moth­er in such a short screen time, a mer­it also of Ju­dith Roberts, who sen­si­bly com­bines loony ec­cen­tric­i­ty and vulnerability.

Even so, two things stand out in You Were Nev­er Re­al­ly Here above all else: first, the fan­tas­tic score com­posed by Ra­dio­head gui­tarist Jon­ny Green­wood with its dense elec­tron­ic beats and an­guish­ing, dis­so­nant strings that re­flect the protagonist’s in­ner tu­mult. The sec­ond, as I said be­fore, is Joaquin Phoenix, who man­ages to con­vey a world of hope­less­ness, des­per­a­tion and emo­tion­al un­bal­ance all at once in the same com­po­si­tion — and the cathar­tic mo­ment when Joe breaks down in an emp­ty room rep­re­sents per­haps the most as­ton­ish­ing and dev­as­tat­ing per­for­mance of his en­tire ca­reer, right there with what he ac­com­plished in The Mas­ter.

Ac­tu­al­ly, a great part of what makes Ramsay’s film so good is Phoenix’s com­plete sur­ren­der to his role and to the ugly mad­ness that ac­com­pa­nies those who are turned into mon­sters by a vi­cious world. In the end, Joe (whose name couldn’t be more ap­pro­pri­ate­ly or­di­nary) is a liv­ing car­cass, pow­er­less and un­able to save any­one who is as bro­ken as him­self. When it comes to thrillers, few di­rec­tors have been able to leave me this un­com­fort­able like Lynne Ramsay.


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