Movie Review: You Were Never Really Here.
Director Lynne Ramsay and star Joaquin Phoenix deliver a taut and gripping tale of violence and redemption.
You Were Never Really Here is the kind of film that grabs you and shakes you. Blending artistry with violence, the direction and performances on display put a hand on the back of your neck and push you along a very dark path filled with unspeakable deeds that leaves you feeling hollowed out and preternaturally aware of yourself. At the end of the film I wanted to sit somewhere quiet and digest what I had seen; I also wanted to rip off my shirt and roar at the sky. The film captures, viscerally, the brute animal nature of humanity pushed to its most harrowing extremes.
You Were Never Really Here (2018).
Joe is a war veteran suffering from a lifetime of abuse and trauma. He is also a man who is employed to do violence to people who do violence to children. His latest job is for a prominent politician whose daughter has been taken by a child prostitution ring. The politician wants his daughter back, and he wants the people involved hurt very badly. Joe is just the man for the job…but things get even darker and more dangerous when the powerful patron of the underage sex business targets anyone close to Joe in order to get the girl back.
Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance.
Joaquin Phoenix gives the kind of completely lived-in performance as Joe that makes you deeply concerned for the actor. Like Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood, there is no daylight between the performance and the character, making for a very intense portrayal of a very damaged man. Phoenix can make starring at the camera quietly into a harrowing experience for the audience. It’s a shocking and transcendent performance that creates a sense of immediacy between Joe and the viewer.
Phoenix is matched by some very excellent performances along the way. Young Ekaterina Samsonov plays Nina, the kidnapped girl, with a haunting and ethereal quality. Judith Anna Roberts plays Joe’s aging mother who is struggling through dementia with such heart-rending sincerity that I was nearly sick with worry about what you sense is inevitably going to be a tragic end to her story. Even a small part by Scott Price, where he plays one of Joe’s victims who is dying slowly, is given a memorable performance.
The Art of Destruction.
Director Lynne Ramsay (We Need to Talk About Kevin) crafts a film that is taut and lean, yet also imbued with nice artistic flourishes. Nearly the whole film moves along relentlessly with terrific pacing, so when Ramsay slows the story down, it is to good effect. There is one underwater sequence that feels slightly out of place for the tone of the film but is executed so beautifully that I couldn’t imagine cutting it. Ramsay also handles the intense violence of the piece in an adroit manner, leading the viewer to expect gore and brutality but then deftly showing the carnage in only an oblique manner. Having become accustomed to the elided violence, the unfiltered instances of it become that much more impactful.
The film chooses to wield its soundtrack like a bludgeon, jarring the audience with music and sound that feels like the actual soundtrack was being eaten by a tape player. Much like the sound work in the equally disturbing indie film Good Time, it is incredibly effective but also off putting. There are also sudden percussions of noise that would put a horror movie to shame with their shocking arrival, so be warned.
There is something ineffable about You Were Never Really Here. The film has been compared to Martin Scorsese‘s Taxi Driver, which is accurate but not quite right. Both stories have a deeply flawed and damaged character at their center, played by an actor of tremendous talent, who finds a form of redemption by protecting an innocent person. As excellent as Taxi Driver is, there is an element of provocativeness or lurid spectacle, that we’re watching the spectacular and inevitable destruction of a character in real time. With You Were Never Really Here, the story feels like more of an elegy to the emotionally damaged, a sad song about how a man gets so thoroughly broken and what, if anything, can fill up the cracks in him besides violence and self destruction.
The deep sense of humanity crafted for all of the characters in this story elevates the film above its peers. This is a squalid tale set in a vicious world that we would like very much not to be a mirror of our own. It would be nice to deny the inhumanity of the proceedings, to chalk it up to a grotesque metaphor, but the care put into creating such unmistakably deep and life-like characters gives the bitter lie to that denial. There might not be a Joe out there in the real world, but there are people suffering from trauma and abuse, and children forced into monstrous situations, and there are also the people who make the situations that create a Joe or a Nina. That’s more terrifying than any tale of violence and revenge.