What it’s about: Joe [Joaquin Phoenix] is an assassin who specializes in rescuing girls kidnapped into sex slavery. He receives a job from a Senator whose daughter was recently taken. Shortly after completing the job, Joe gets caught up in a conspiracy that further endangers his and his target’s lives. And his paranoid psychosis certainly doesn’t help. As the threats become greater, Joe is increasingly overtaken by flashes from a traumatic childhood and life of heinous violence. His grasp on sanity becomes just as dangerous as the men out to kill him.
If you’ve ever seen director Lynne Ramsay’s work, especially her last film We Need to Talk About Kevin, you know that she isn’t wary of diving into incredibly dark territory of the minds that perpetrate violence. You Were Never Really Here is a bit different, though, as the most violent character is the hero -- a flawed hero, certainly, but the hero. We might not root for the violence, but there is something cathartic about seeing a man saunter through a house, taking out men connected to a child sex trafficking ring.
I don’t know if the memory flashbacks makes for a great character study, but Joaquin Phoenix is the perfect actor to play this character. Phoenix is one of the most interesting looking actors working, with a face that tells the story all by itself. This isn’t The Master level of examining closeups, but he wears all the character’s trauma and experience without the need of any exposition.
One particular image involving a shipping container adds an extraordinary amount of character development in a simple way. It is by far the most insightful and intriguing image of all the flashbacks.
The bleak tone is both offset and heightened by early interactions between Joe and his elderly mother. Their relationship offers tenderness and just a touch of sadness.
Serious question: Has a ball pein hammer ever been used for anything other than bashing in skulls?
Joe’s raid on the sex traffick house is an upsetting and expertly crafted sequence. It is just explicit enough in its sex and violence to fully understand what is going on, but also only shown in touches of the bigger picture. When Joe enters the building, everything is shown by an automated security cam loop, which conveniently cuts away from the action at the moment just before the impact of violence.
Throughout You Were Never Really Here, Ramsay deals with violence in a similar way. Aside from a few particular moments, the violence is cleverly shown offscreen -- at least it is cut away from precisely at the right moment. This tactic doesn’t make the film less brutal and in fact gives the most gruesome moments even more impact.
This also continually leaves the viewer with only the consequences of violence, which helps focus the bleak tone. It takes a bit away from the potential reaction of cheering on the violence [which is definitely there at times] and realistically portrays how violence is a messy thing, even for a sleek professional.
You Were Never Really Here ends on a moment of shocking dark humor, really the only comedic moment in the entire film. Overall, I didn’t love the open-ended nature of the final beat [a “where do we go from here” trope] and I couldn’t quite reconcile the window of hope for Joe, but it is definitely a strong and disarming way to end.
The similarities between You Were Never Really Here and Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver are too prevalent to be accidental. Since seeing the film, I realized that this wasn’t some personal discovery and has already been written about all over. It is at a strange degree, however, including not only a flawed, possibly psychotic protagonist, but ties to child prostitution and political assassinations, as well. I’m not sure if You Were Never Really Here openly comments or subverts Taxi Driver in any way, but it is definitely more sympathetic toward its characters and there are clearer villains. It does, however, add a nice bit of recognition to an fairly lean thriller.