Lynne Ramsay’s grim character study sees Joaquin Phoenix as a bearded, bruised enforcer in an adaptation of Jonathan Ames’ novella of the same name.
Meet Joe: Long, matted hair, knotty beard; thick and heavy, like a slab of lumbering meat. Joe is trauma personified – his own and other people’s. Childhood abuse and combat experience flood his psyche; and when it periodically spills over he visits his pain on others with his fists or a hammer. He’s the hero of You Were Never Really Here, but “hero” is a relative term. It’s just his head we live inside for the lean 90 minutes that Lynne Ramsay devotes to a study of this man’s character. Joe, much to my annoyance, is incredibly difficult to make jokes about.
In fact, this might be the most humourless film I’ve seen in quite some time. Which is not a criticism. It’s just that it’s kind of my shtick to be blasé about such things, lest I be confused for one of those insufferable pseudo-intellectual critics. It’s impossible to be blasé about You Were Never Really Here. Again: not a criticism. Only films as exceedingly well-made as this one make you feel guilty for treating them lightly.
You can tell right from the beginning that this isn’t going to be fun. Joe’s burger-patty hands fondle a roll of duct tape and a bloodstained hammer; he dumps the ominous offending objects in a hotel trash cart on his way outside. Back in the night, he pulls his sweatshirt hood up over his shaggy head, just the beard looming from the negative space where his face should be. He’s as much a part of the alley he skulks in as any of the other shadows that creep between the buildings.
Joe works as a hired gun, retrieving trafficked young girls from sleek townhouses that are like filing cabinets for deviants. John Doman plays his handler; Frank Pando their middleman. It’s a straightforward arrangement. Joe is paid a large sum of money to rescue the underage daughter (Ekaterina Samsonov) of a state senator (Alex Manette). Joe doesn’t have many expenses. Rolls of tape, stakeout snacks, hammer. With it, he batters his way into a conspiracy that seeps from the uppermost layers down, as all foul spillages tend to.
Corruption and exploitation in politics and society are nothing new. The higher you go, the further everyone has to fall, the harder they’re willing to cling on. So the plot doesn’t go anywhere surprising. No matter. You Were Never Really Here isn’t about anyone but Joe. His self-loathing energy is the film’s insistent, black-hole gravity. Everything swirls around him, drawn steadily towards the nexus of his anger and the few remaining dregs of tenderness he spares for his frail mother (Judith Roberts) and the victims he carries on his back, literally and otherwise.
If I’m starting to sound like one of those critics I rightly mocked earlier, you only have Lynne Ramsay to blame. Her films might have familiar shapes, but she only colours outside the lines. Her characters live in the spaces; the gaps between heroes and villains, the accepted and the marginalised, the charismatic and the inarticulate. How are we supposed to feel about Joe? Do we value his compassion for his mother over his bludgeoning to death of pimps and molesters? Does the unavoidable brutality of his past excuse the wilful brutality of his present?
Without Joaquin Phoenix, none of this would work, or at least not quite so well. He has been tremendous before, and he remains so here, but this is less a performance than transmutation. He is Joe. He shudders with his pain, and for as long as he’s on-screen, the man is real. When his green eyes glimmer with intent, you can see yourself reflected in the blackness of his pupils, wondering where he might go, and what he might do.
You Were Never Really Here doesn’t ask for your empathy. Doesn’t need it. You can guess at the things in Joe’s past that have driven him to fall through the cracks of society. New York, in this film, is his psychosis rendered in lamp-lit glass and steel. The noise. The pressure. The keening metal, roaring traffic, blaring horns, whispered secrets, screamed threats, choked sobs, and the damp thuds, of marching people, of hammers hitting skulls. The relentless cacophony of a city always moving, always changing. And there’s Joe; still, unchanged, hidden in plain sight. An outsider. Blink, and he’s gone. Or maybe he was never there at all.
Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.