Director: Lynne Ramsay
Stars: Joaquin Phoenix, Judith Roberts, Ekaterina Samsonov
“Whatever happened to the strong silent type?” Tony Soprano would bemoan defensively throughout The Sopranos, most often using Gary Cooper as an example to eschew the need for his own therapy. The truth is, Tony, that this particular trope never really went anywhere, and remains a potent staple of modern thrillers. Witness the popularity of Nicolas Winding Refn’s neon-noir Drive, or Keanu Reeves’ devastatingly methodical assassin in the John Wick films. Crime flicks focusing on monosyllabic men who commit immense acts of violence for whatever noble cause litter pop culture. They are our modern white knights; superheroes ejected out of fantasy cinema, prowling the streets we share. They are loners with unknown pasts who have frequently moved beyond emotion. They are their own will and nothing more.
Lynne Ramsay’s new film You Were Never Really Here wades in the same waters, but exposes the simplicity of these popular urban anti-heroes. Joaquin Phoenix stars as Joe; a war veteran who now works as a man-for-hire in New York, sought after for his facility for getting the job done while doling out acts of brutality on request. Lost someone? He’ll find them and make sure whoever took them suffers for it.
Like most of cinema’s knights of vengeance he’s a loner and a quiet man (Phoenix mumbles his way through the entire piece), but unlike many of his contemporaries, he is near hobbled by the scars of both the past and the present. These are represented physically – all over his body – and through intermittent flashbacks which suggest rather than show. He is dependent on prescription medication and is prone to hallucinatory attacks of PTSD in which past and present combine and overwhelm him. He has no ties, other than an ailing mother (Judith Roberts) and a scarcely seen pet cat. He has built a life outside of society, but it is not sustainable. Phoenix portrays Joe as a man holding his persona together with both hands. You Were Never Really Here works as a classic crime story, but it’s also an unraveling.
The process dispels the myth that there is anything glamorously heroic about the passive one-man-army, acknowledging the brittleness of such an existence, and how profoundly connected to trauma it would become. Joe is adept with firearms, but he’s more at home with a sturdy hammer. This weapon of choice gains greater significance as those elliptical flashbacks start to suggest a history of familial abuse similarly drawn from the toolbox. Violence begets violence. Ramsay tightens in further and presents us corruptible masculinity. Joe’s mother is dottering; a shadow of a whole person. Elsewhere in the film mothers are conspicuously absent. Ramsay appears to be suggesting that without women providing a strong moral compass, men are perhaps more prone to succumbing to themselves.
Which brings us to the story at hand, in which Joe is hired to rescue a prominent man’s daughter from the clutches of a sex trafficking syndicate. The daughter, Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), is being held at a town house specialising in underage girls. Even before finding her, Joe is sinuously connected to her via his own barely concealed traumas. They need only speak a handful of words to one another to become bonded.
Ramsay’s film has not an ounce of fat on it, coming in just under 90 minutes. Each shot seems considered without seeming too precious, while Jonny Greenwood provides an eclectic and propulsive score that is far removed from his work for Paul Thomas Anderson. The grit and grime of the city, along with Joe’s ‘work’, is framed without sentimentality, recalling the eye of Claire Denis. But this in itself is an aesthetic. Compare Joe’s corridor assaults to those found in either iteration of Oldboy and Ramsay’s approach becomes clear; the violence here is not to entertain, rather it is a horrendous byproduct of this cycle of abuse.
Joe wants to shield Nina from this world, prevent her further corruption, but her choice is to experience it with eyes wide open. She seems to be readying herself through exposure. Elsewhere, Joe’s approach is the opposite. The title You Were Never Really Here feels like a lie he tells himself as part of this failing attempt to disassociate. This comes to an eerie head at the end of the second act, when killer and victim join hands and sing along to the radio together, avoiding the reality of the moment they share. That may sound absurd or wholly out-of-place. In fact it’s perhaps the most nakedly tender scene in a film riddled with open wounds.
The film’s finale exposes Joe’s greatest fear; that he is a man without consequence in the world, who wouldn’t be missed by anyone (again the title feels entirely on-point). Ramsay offers a counterpoint that might just pass muster as a happy ending. But don’t be deceived; You Were Never Really Here is a brutal, intense and mirthless experience from start to finish. But it also feels a little bit electric, and is far too captivating to become mired in misery.
If the story itself is boilerplate (echoes of Taxi Driver, Leon: The Professional, Drive) the approach is anything but. The originality crackles in the sensation that Ramsay has taken one of the great myths of modern American cinema and swung a sledgehammer at its knees.