Joaquin Phoenix plays a tortured, almost silent hit man in Lynne Ramsay’s moody thriller about the terrors of the past and the price of violence
You Were Never Really Here
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Ekaterina Samsonov
Directed by: Lynne Ramsay
Running time: 85 minutes
Rating: 3½ stars out of 5
By Jay Stone
Ten years ago, Joaquin Phoenix grew an alarmingly bushy beard and went on talk shows to announce — or rather to mumble — that he was quitting acting to become a rap artist. This turned out to be an ill-judged publicity stunt (or perhaps a piece of performance art) for a stupid film called I’m Still Here, a mockumentary (or perhaps a piece of performance art) in which Phoenix essays the rap life and snorts cocaine. The world practically threw out its back shrugging.
The actor is now back with a slightly less lavish beard, but with no depreciation in his Method commitment, in a movie called You Were Never Really Here, whose title sounds like a review, or maybe a rebuke, of the previous one. It’s not. You Were Never Really Here (whose title comes from the source material, a novel by Jonathan Ames) is a patently non-stupid movie that nonetheless shares the same sense of woozy discomfort.
That’s partly due to the direction by Scottish filmmaker Lynn Ramsay, who fractures what plot there is into small pieces of violent fantasy, and partly due to Phoenix, who broods his way into the role of a brutal, tortured hit man named Joe who takes the job quite literally — most of his hits are done with a ball peen hammer — and then tries to think of ways to kill himself while remembering a disturbing past.
We get only hints of this: Joe’s memories of being a frightened child, quick scenes of soldiers, a young boy shooting someone, the welts on Joe’s back, the way he keeps sticking his head into plastic laundry bags and half-suffocating himself. He hardly talks at all, but his eyes speak volumes.
Set to a disturbing electronic score by Jonny Greenwood — who performed similar mood magic in P.T. Anderson’s Phantom Thread — You Were Never Really Here follows Joe as he tries to rescue a young teenager named Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov) from a child sex ring operating out of a high-class brownstone somewhere in New York City. Nina is the daughter of an ambitious politician, and Joe’s investigations take him into the edges of corrupt senators, bad cops, and the other miseries of the modern decaying city.
Indeed, the film has more than a few hints of Taxi Driver, especially the final section when Travis Bickle — the anti-hero cabbie who wants to cleanse the dirty city with yet more bloodshed — frees a teenage prostitute from her pimp by the simple expedient of shooting everyone dead. Joe is Bickle’s enigmatic cousin, a man whose traumatic past is never made clear and whose heroic quest is never made easy.
Disturbingly, Ramsay films the movie from his point of view, putting us behind the eyes of a guy who stalks the halls of a vice den with a hammer slung over his shoulder, leaving bloodied bodies in his wake (this is a violent film, but much of the actual killing takes place off-screen). With his untamed beard, stringy pony tail and husky physique — Phoenix stalks the movie with a rolling gait, as if he was about to enter a wrestling ring — Joe presents an explosive threat whenever his is on the screen, which is for the entire movie. (Phoenix won the best actor award at last year’s Cannes film festival.)
He has a soft side as well. We see him caring for his slightly addled mother (Judith Roberts). “Mom, I’m home,” he says, coming in from his latest slaughter by hammer — the victim is uncertain because Joe’s memories and his crimes are blended in Ramsay’s storytelling — only to find her sitting in front of the TV watching Psycho. This seems kind of obvious until a few minutes later, when mom is hogging the bathroom by taking a long shower and Joe stands outside the door and mimes stabbing her to death. There’s always room for a joke, even in the grimmest of families.
Ramsay (Ratcatcher, We Need To Talk About Kevin) is a gritty filmmaker who dances around plot points in favour of hints and layers of tone. There are astonishing scenes in You Were Never Really Here — you’ll remember a scene where a killer and his victim hold hands and sing along to a tune on the radio during the slow death — but its strength lies mainly in its uncompromising refusal to cater to expectations. It’s not just that the heroic moments are stained with regret and melancholy; it’s that the audience is frequently left on its own to sort things out. It’s something of an honour to be treated this way, but you come away wondering about the artist’s responsibility in these matters. This is an amazing movie that’s not for everyone.
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