You Were Never Really Here starts with noises filling the darkness of the screen, a cacophony of sounds and voices that sets up the landscape for the entire movie, representing the society in which the main protagonist is drowning. During about the first five minutes, viewers see partial shots of the protagonist in the act of cleaning up, arranging, packing and leaving a hotel room, disposing of a trash bag, and making his way to the airport. Viewers know that something bad has happened, but they don’t know exactly what because everything takes place in the shadows. Joe, a former Marine, FBI agent, and veteran played by Joaquin Phoenix slowly emerges from the shadows, moving towards the light as the plot thickens, so that by the end of the film, he has come fully into the light for viewers and the world to see.
The sensibility of Lynne Ramsay, the director, dominates every aspect of You Were Never Really Here,and that is one of the film’s most consistent strengths. The story is based on a short novel by the same title written by Jonathan Ames. The film is backed by some of the same producers as another brilliant film about what happens in the shadows of existence, Under The Skin (2013), the two films have something in common, they push the drama-thriller genre to emotional depths and keep violence to the essential; refreshing indeed.
In You Were Never Really Here Joe is a damaged person with violent experiences that pre-date his military service, he is hunted by the violence he has witnessed and in turn uses violence as a tool. To atone for his past and perhaps to deal with his trauma, he’s a mercenary who rescues young girls from human traffickers for pay. Joe is a survivor, self-medicating, using asphyxiation strategies to manage his anxiety, and remaining hyper focused just to survive in a society in which he is invisible. Ramsay delivers a multifaceted work that never devolves into the obvious or spoon-feeds viewers, but instead leaves it to the viewers to peel back the layers of family violence, misogyny, post-traumatic stress disorder, and the betrayal by government and institutions. Buried in the layers is also love and an exploration of innocence and how these can survive even in the most savage of times and conditions.
Phoenix is in top form. His portrayal of Joe as a taciturn, almost hermetically sealed to the world person, fills the entire screen through subtle movements. Phoenix acts with every fiber of his Being, articulating dilemma and suffering by deliberate manipulation of his torso, shoulders, and hands. His body shows scars that reveal a longer and deeper history that is alive and well in his consciousness. When Joe gets an assignment to rescue the daughter of a political candidate, he delivers without a problem but then things go awry and it is in this experience that he loses what little he has left, and also regains parts of himself. His weapon of choice is a ball-peen hammer, which in and of itself speaks volumes of what efficient killing machine he has become. In the film Léon: The Professional (1994) Léon, a mercenary played by Jean Reno is in a similar situation having to care for and rescue a young girl (played by 12-year old Natalie Portman). There’s a scene in which Léon explains that the better the killer, the more personal the weapon, riffles are for the inexperienced, but as one becomes more proficient at killing then one can get closer to the target and use a knife, or in the case of Joe, a hammer.
Ekaterina Samsonov, age 15, plays Nina Votto, the young girl rescued by Joe. She has very few lines, but when she does speak, it is because she too has emerged from her horrific experience. Nina and Joe have resiliency and humanity in common. For Joe, Nina provides an opportunity to awaken. A pivotal points of the film is when Joe goes in for his final target and realizes that the target is already dead, his emotional response signals to viewers that the narrative is not only Joe’s but also Nina’s; regaining her agency opens both characters to a new reality.
Ramsay has few films to her name, but as a director, she is a solid as they come. She has an ability to bring out the best in her actors and create rich and seamless narratives, her sensibility is built into the details, down to the soundtrack and the intimacy created by moments of tender normalcy that find their way into the script. You Were Never Really Here is about all of us, who wake up every morning struggling to find purpose in a society that isolates by design.
You Were Never Really Here
Monday, June 4 at 7:50 PM