“Each scene is like an experimental symphony, playing strange chords and making new sounds. They clash on the ear, but they draw us into deeply felt patterns and emotions, defined by their intense, unflinching authenticity.”
by Ken Bakely
DISCLAIMER: This review contains spoilers.
Throughout Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here, Joaquin Phoenix walks around as if in a fog. His character, Joe, is a striking deconstruction of the American action hero. Where there is expected pride and ebullience, he is haunted. After all, he’s committed brutal acts of violence against reprehensible people – all on assignment for wealthy parties – and while society would expect such a person to be monolithic and charismatic, especially considering his past military service, he is cursed with a deep resentment for humanity through the horrors he has witnessed. The film is unsparing, yet tightly wound. Scenes pass by with little to no dialogue, instead working with a cacophony of peripheral sounds, songs, and conversations. They’re louder than any individual actions, coming together and blending to overwhelm. We live in the carnage of Joe’s psyche, and Ramsay doesn’t let us out. Here is a movie which plunges us into a wringer, but never stops to tell us how much it’s achieving. It’s a far too singular and focused work to languish in its own achievements. It wouldn’t dream of letting us off the hook.
It’s a violent film, but it abhors the idea of depicting violence for our own prurient pleasures. In one scene, Joe infiltrates a brothel filled with kidnapped girls, searching for the abducted daughter of a state senator. He kills a string of bodyguards and clients with a large hammer, but Ramsay never shows us the act in close-up. She runs it through grainy, greyscale surveillance footage, shot from a distance and without detail. You Were Never Really Here doesn’t give us the satisfaction of watching bad guys get killed. Soon after, Joe’s mother, and some of his handlers, are killed by a team of hitmen sent on behalf of the trafficking ring’s powerful operators. When witnessing his mother’s murder, he traps one of the killers in the house, but the scene devotes most of its attention to him, with the assailant dying on the kitchen floor, deliriously singing along to a song on the radio. It doesn’t show us the moment of his death. Everything Joe does is performed with a lumbering and resigned pace. He is a man destroyed by his past, but also constructed by the definitions he requires to survive. Phoenix fixes his eyes ahead, moving Joe’s heavy and tired body like an automaton, but without forgetting the maelstrom within.
You Were Never Really Here is a gutwrenching experience. It denies the cultural desire for constant delineation between prepackaged reality and fantasy: Joe’s exhausted daydreams, often suicidal, play with the same face value rigor as every “actual” plot development. Ramsay’s dreamlike minimalism comes into play here, and yet all the while, she doesn’t lose sight of the tense grip her script holds on her main character, and by extension, us. When Joe goes out to track down the leaders of the ring, it’s not to find catharsis, but to complete the symbiotic delegation that defines his entire existence.
By the end of this journey, a ring of high-profile political corruption behind all the trafficking and killing has been uncovered and ostensibly interrupted. But the movie, once again, isn’t focused on the exterior details that would take us away from the central character study. Whatever happens next can’t change anything. Ramsay closes the film with a perfectly opaque finale, mixing the same blend of momentary shock, thematic forthrightness, and tightly controlled ambiance that has made You Were Never Really Here as accomplished as it is. A rare example of a proclamation on anti-violence that actually manages to be anti-violence, it uses the archetypes of the vigilante action film to get inside the head of a character struck by an ongoing cycle of traumas. Ramsay has said that she envisioned the character as having a head full of broken glass. Each fragment cuts into an old wound, damaging the scarred skin. And yet in all this, it isn’t arbitrarily punishing. You can’t imagine this material ever feeling more alive and present. Each scene is like an experimental symphony, playing strange chords and making new sounds. They clash on the ear, but they draw us into deeply felt patterns and emotions, defined by their intense, unflinching authenticity.