Be2Can Review: Joaquin Phoenix Rises Through ‘You Were Never Really Here’
In one of the finest sequences in Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here, Joaquin Phoenix’s Joe lies down on the floor next to a man he has fatally shot (for good reason). They listen to the radio and even sing along together, and Joe holds the man’s hand as he slowly dies from his wounds.
We don’t know who this man is (nor does Joe), but it’s a moment of rare compassion in a world of violence that self-reflectively examines the body count that usually piles up in films like these. If the bloody deaths of nameless henchmen in revenge movies is intended to provide some catharsis, how do you react to their last gasp of naked humanity?
You Were Never Really Here has been hailed (by festival posters at Cannes, where it held its world premiere) as the ‘Taxi Driver of the 21st Century’. Indeed, the film has the story of a hard-boiled detective noir (from the novel by Bored to Death creator Jonathan Ames) and a plot akin to Taken, in which a grizzled antihero attempts to rescue a young girl from human traffickers.
But if you go into the film expecting a straightforward narrative (even by Taxi Driver standards) or cheap revenge movie thrills, you’ll be confounded by what you actually see on the screen. Director Ramsay (Ratcatcher, Morvern Caller, We Need to Talk About Kevin) is known for her unconventional approach, and turns her most conventional material to date into something entirely unexpected.
It’s a nightmarish world filled with flashbacks and hallucinations and even, I think, alternative interpretations of what is actually going on. Ames’ novel, presumably, got its title from Joe’s detached headcase, who walks through the storyline without really being present in it. Ramsay, meanwhile, applies that to the audience: we can never trust what we see on the screen, only the emotions they evoke.
Phoenix’s Joe is, we gather from fragmented images that hit the screen in short bursts, a survivor of childhood trauma and a war veteran who has seen more than he can handle, and now floats through life in a suicidal daze.
He’s also a good-guy Jack Reacher type who’s hired by his contact (The Wire’s John Doman) to rescue the 12-year-old daughter (Ekaterina Samsonov) of a politician from a pedophile ring. But the lurid plot details here are never of concern to the filmmaker: they’re merely a starting point to examine something far deeper.
While the film is drenched in blood and shocking imagery, nearly all the violence takes place offscreen; we typically only see the aftermath of grisly violence, from Joe’s weapon of choice (a ball-peen hammer), a handgun, or a straight razor.
Along with the other comparisons that have been made to the movie, I’d like to add one more strange coincidence: You Were Never Really Here follows the blockbuster superhero movie Logan almost beat-for-beat, with Phoenix’s Joe a substitute for Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine.
Both movies feature a narrative that involve the antihero saving a young girl from pursuers - and redeeming themselves in the process. Both movies are excellent in their own way, but where Logan gives viewers everything they expect, You Were Never Really Here does the exact opposite and forces the audience to confront those expectations every step of the way.
One side note: while Ramsay’s approach here quite brilliantly deconstructs the typical revenge movie, it also strips down her own material for what it really is and the underlying storyline can often feel unrealistic or even silly as a result.
But You Were Never Really Here is a fascinating movie on many levels, and while that underlying story may not work on its own terms, it works quite wonderfully as contemplative reflection of its genre. And there are many other elements that provide the kind of genre thrills that the story does not, from Phoenix’s exceptional lead performance to the gritty high-contrast cinematography (by Thomas Townend) and retro 80s synth score by Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood.
Screened in Prague at this year’s Be2Can festival, you’re going to have to wait to see You Were Never Really Here in general release: it’s set for a February 2018 bow in the states and an April debut in the Czech Republic.