Lynne Ramsay follows We Need to Talk About Kevin with another masterwork on the cyclical traumas of violence, sporting a poetically grotesque performance from a haggard Joaquin Phoenix at its center.
Between Ratcatcher, Morvern Callar and We Need to Talk About Kevin, Scottish filmmaker Lynne Ramsay has cemented quite the career as an arthouse brutalist – her films are more poetry than prose, digging into themes of death, violence and longing with a formalist’s eye toward sound design and dreamlike editing over exposition and plot. Her latest, You Were Never Really Here, hews closely to that mission statement, and it might well be one of her best and most visceral thrillers to date.
Based on the novella by Jonathan Ames, You Were Never Really Here follows Joe (a hulking, bearded Joaquin Phoenix), a weary, suicidal veteran who, upon his return to America, makes a modest living as an enforcer for an old friend (John Doman) to take care of his ailing mother (Judith Roberts). One day, he’s tasked by a high-powered senator (Alex Manette) to rescue his teenage daughter Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), who’s been kidnapped and sold into sex slavery. As expected with films like these, that job naturally goes wrong, and Joe must find a way to not only survive, but ensure Nina’s safety.
If that description sounds like any given direct-to-video thriller from the 90s, you’re not far off base – in the hands of a lesser director, this would feel like nothing more than a ripoff of Leon The Professional or Man on Fire. Rest assured, then, that in Ramsay’s capable hands this simple, straightforward tale of revenge and violence is elevated to the level of avant-garde art. Every shot drips with the atmosphere of an early Michael Mann flick (Thief comes to mind) but infused with an emotional intimacy that only Ramsay could achieve.
Regular P.T. Anderson collaborator Jonny Greenwood provided the score, and it’s a match made in heaven for Ramsay’s textured, off-kilter approach – moody synths blend with cacophonous distorted guitar riffs to underline Joe’s untethered psyche, and to sell the unrelenting brutality by which he dispatches his targets.
Amidst this cavalcade of violence is Pheonix, who gives one of the greatest, most intense performances of his career. His Joe is a broken man, preoccupied with his own death from moment one; Ramsay practically opens the film with an unsettling image of Phoenix trying to smother himself with a plastic bag, a recurring motif as brief, horrific flashbacks send him back to an abusive youth spend cowering in coat closets. He’s a man passively looking for the end, his only tenuous connection to life being his mother (and later, Nina). That defeated attitude is reflected in every muttered rebuke and shrugged shoulder, Phoenix’s wounded eyes peering out from above that shaggy beard (which, along with his beady-eyed intensity, weirdly invites comparisons to his performance art prank from I’m Still Here).
He’s a live wire for every one of the film’s lean 90 minutes, and we fear him as much as we fear for him. In fact, Joe’s dynamic with Nina, a cagey young woman dealing with traumas of her own, brings his situation into greater relief – while their traumas have shattered them, there’s a bizarre sense of solidarity that allows them to feel shattered together.
Ramsay never lets on whether she sees Joe’s journey as one of healing or further self-destruction, which makes it even more compelling. Whether he’s jamming a ball pien hammer – his weapon of choice – into the skull of his enemy, or breaking down into a shuddering mess in a child’s bedroom, Phoenix’s performance is nothing short of mesmerizing.
When Joe isn’t peering longingly into the abyss, he’s doing what he does best, and Ramsay does little to romanticize his hit-man proclivities. You’d be hard pressed to find a more brutal, unrelenting portrayal of man’s inhumanity to man as you do here, Ramsay’s camera lingering courageously on tableaus of violence, pools of blood collecting in every corner of Joe’s life.
Liam Neeson he ain’t, but Phoenix’s brute-force intensity is perhaps even more horrifying for its lack of finesse. And yet, there are moments of tenderness that evince the flickering glimpses of humanity that remain – one scene where Joe takes a moment to lay next to one of his gut-shot enemies as he bleeds out, the two of them singing along to a song on the radio, is one of You Were Never Really Here’s most hauntingly beautiful moments.
While it might not reach the poetic highs of We Need to Talk About Kevin, You Were Never Really Here presents a mighty case for low-brow, grindhouse exploitation fare to be uplifted and elevated by the work of visionary directors like Lynne Ramsay. It’s an assault on the senses, an unrelenting portrait of brutality that nonetheless finds instances of beauty within all the chaos. Infused in every drop of blood and grainy security-cam shot of Phoenix going Beast Mode on a child sex trafficker is Ramsay’s signature melancholy, a thick blanket of despair that makes this far smarter and more sensitive than the fascist wish-fulfillment that hitman thrillers tend to be.
You Were Never Really Here opens on Friday, April 13th in Chicago at the AMC River East, Landmark Century Centre and Century in Evanston.