You Were Never Really Here movie review: Joaquin Phoenix is a beast uncaged, a silent Avenger
You Were Never Really Here
Director - Lynne Ramsay
Cast - Joaquin Phoenix, Ekaterina Samsonov
Rating - 4/5
A weathered old man protecting an abused child, thereby giving purpose to his meaningless existence, is a movie trope that we’re all familiar with. It can be traced back to the great Westerns of old, to films like Shane and The Searchers, when the idea of masculinity was different, and morality was less complicated than it is today. Which is why several of the modern movies that have revisited this familiar set up – films such as Children of Men, Logan, Leon: The Professional, even Deadpool 2 – have all been influenced by Westerns in some manner or the other.
But as often as we’ve walked these roads – despite all the films, the recent video game The Last of Us is perhaps the greatest version of this trope – the new Lynne Ramsay movie, You Were Never Really Here, somehow finds ways to make the journey fresh.
It tells the story of Joe – a simple, traditionally cinematic name for the brooding hero – whose memories of a violent military past penetrate him like unexpected bullets during a skirmish. Like so many veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, to channel his skills and emotional turmoil into something worthwhile, Joe has chosen a new life for himself.
Assimilation into civilian life is virtually impossible for combat veterans – many of them are left destitute, riddled with mental health problems and with insufficient funds or support to overcome them – but Joe has found a way. Similar to the protagonist of the recent HBO show, Barry – although the connections begin and end with the premise – Joe has become a hired gun. He specializes in rescuing victims of human trafficking.
The terrific Liam Neeson film Taken – perhaps the seminal late-period Neeson movie – offered a more pulpy version of this story, which was basically prolific producer Luc Besson doing what he does best – milking a proven idea until every last drop of profit has been extracted. In Taken’s case, Besson went back to the Leon well in the hopes of replenishing a dwindling bank account. It worked. But despite the familiarity of You Were Never Really Here – a title second only to that of another Joaquin Pheonix movie, the upcoming Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot – Lynne Ramsay’s deliberate style elevates it into one of the better examples of the sort of movies we’ve been discussing.
Honestly, though, there have been very few bad eggs in this basket, which is probably why it’s perhaps considered such a safe bet. However, there is nothing safe about You Were Never Really Here. Those of you who aren’t familiar – let alone comfortable – with Ramsay’s movies might feel lost, or confused, or maybe even a little violated. Which is precisely the condition in which Joe finds young Nina. On one of his routine missions in one of the several vice dens that seem to be scattered around this film’s version of New York City, he comes across a young girl – one of many, but the only one he has been tasked to rescue.
He slays every gangster in the vicinity, commanding Nina to cover her eyes while he conducts his business – and that is perhaps the best description of the workmanlike manner in which he kills; it’s his job. With Nina slung over his back, he tiptoes over bodies punctured by bullets and drenched in sticky blood, and slides into his car, a vehicle as unassuming as its owner.
You Were Never Really Here is deeply serene film, punctuated with unexpected bursts of graphic thematic and visual violence – like an Icelandic fjord disturbed by a plane crash. For nearly its entire, crisp 90-minute length, it is virtually silent – the blasts of a gun or the screams of death providing the only break from a characteristically terrific and typically eclectic score by Johnny Greenwood.
Like Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, one of my favourite films of all time and an obvious influence on You Were Never Really Here – especially in its cool, clinical visuals – it’s as much a story of a sprawling city and its many secrets as it is a character study of a very complicated man. There is shocking darkness beneath both.
And since we have such a wealth of references to draw upon for silent heroes such as Joe, it’s easy to ignore the subtleties of Joaquin Phoenix’s performance. Life has been unkind to Joe, but it hasn’t destroyed him, so he wants to save others from the sadness that he battles on a daily basis. It’s a role that requires him to tread a tightrope emotionally – he’s always just a bad day away from unleashing the monster within, and yet, he is capable of tremendous warmth.
And that is essentially the impression I have of Phoenix, who won the Best Actor award at Cannes for this. I’ve seen him get pooped on in that fake documentary of his - I’m Still Here - in which he pranked the world into thinking that he had quit acting for a career in rap music. That’s as intimate a relationship any viewer could have with an actor.
He’d be great company, I believe, but that would mean summoning up the courage to walk up to him. You Were Never Really Here relies entirely on Phoenix’s talents, and how effectively he manages to get you to tag along on his maniacal journey. Like the man himself, it isn’t everyone’s shot of gin.
Watch the trailer for You Were Never Really Here:
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