Director: Lynne Ramsay Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Ekaterina Samsonov, Judith Roberts Running Time: 90 minutes
He has a unique set of skills, but Joe, the driven murder machine of Lynne Ramsay’s stunning thriller You Were Never Really Here, is far from the typical one-man rampage and the film has much more than cheap kill thrills on its mind. Taking a standard grim and gritty action film plot and considering it with depth, melancholy and honesty, this a film that prompts the question, once you’ve been ‘Taken’, can you ever really come back? And can the heroes tragic backstory truly push him forward or has it long-since pushed him over the edge, not a source of inspiration but a devastating destruction?
Adapting from the short story by Bored to Death creator Jonathan Ames, Ramsay’s screenplay is a to-the-bone exercise in narrative clarity, managing to tell a rich story with an absolute bare amount of information, putting visuals first, always communicating more with how words are said than what they actually are. The specifics of Joaquin Phoenix’s job are never laid out in detail, but we know everything that matters. We see him tracking down abducted children, we see him deal with those responsible with ruthless efficiency, we see that he is very particular, practical and protective of his privacy and we see why. When he’s not cleaning up the dead bodies of heinous offenders, the army vet and ex-government agent is shown taking care of his elderly mother (Judith Roberts, one of the ‘Golden Girls’ of Orange is the New Black) and battling with his PTSD, a crippling affliction that for Joe comes from a variety of traumas from childhood to his former career. His latest job sees him tracking down Nina, the abducted daughter of a burgeoning New York politician who wants to keep things quiet during election season, but as always in stories like this, things run deeper than they first seem and rescuing Nina quickly takes on a more abstract quality, a desperate, determined attempt at salvation in every sense.
Very few actors working today could carry this film as effectively as Joaquin Phoenix, who consistently carries himself a little bit ‘gone’ as an actor, possibly never as well as he does here. Joe is hyper-competent, but that always comes across as a reactive measure, a need to be that way in order to function given his past. He’s sad and scary and gripping to watch under Ramsay’s lens. During his violent work, the camera is at a distance, capturing something ugly and unnerving at a distance that almost feels like happenstance. The violence is kept mostly off-screen, implied or shown after the fact and is all the more horrifying for it, particularly in a chilling CCTV sequence around the midpoint of the film that melds John Wick style action savants with found-footage horror. Outside these scenes, the film regards Joe with empathy, devoting time to his routine, taking on a lighter tone in scenes with his mother or Nina. It’s subtle until it’s brutal and never flinches from the story’s nasty core of child abuse. Blank but very understandably so, rising star Ekaterina Samsonov (also featuring this year in Todd Haynes’ Wonderstruck) is a punch to the stomach in each of the few scenes she appears as Nina. Joe’s flashbacks, kept as literal fleeting flashes, mix up the straightforward central story and push them to an unsettling ellipses. If Joe clearly isn’t whole after the abuse he suffered, then Nina…
With deft filmmaking focused around a brilliant lead performance, You Were Never Really Here is an excruciatingly punishing but unforgettable film. It’s deconstructs a certain strand of ‘save the girl’ thrillers with an emotional approach that makes it one of the best films of its kind and one of the best films of the year. An unquestionable highlight of this year’s ADIFF and essential viewing now in wider release, You Were Never Really Here will plunge viewers to difficult depths and leave them to sink or swim.
(5 / 5)