You Were Never Really Here (Sydney Film Festival)
Joaquin Phoenix, Ekaterina Samsonov
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…takes the skeleton of an action movie and uses it as a scaffold on which to build a bleak and confronting portrait of trauma and loss.
Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), a veteran of the FBI, the Marines, and horrific childhood abuses, works as an unlicensed private investigator who specialises in retrieving girls who have been sold into sex slavery. Hired to find and rescue Nina ( Ekaterina Samsonov), the daughter of Senator Votto (Alex Mannette), he soon finds that he is in over his head, and it isn’t long before the bodies start piling up.
Based on that precis you could be forgiving for dismissing Lynne Ramsay’s adaptation of Jonathan Ames’ 2013 novel as a fairly straight forward and somewhat derivative genre exercise. That would be a mistake. You Were Never Really Here wears its influences on its sleeve – a hefty dose of Taxi Driver, a touch of David Mamet’s underrated Spartan, and a wholesale sampling from the work of crime writer Andrew Vachss. Ramsay takes the skeleton of an action movie and uses it as a scaffold on which to build a bleak and confronting portrait of trauma and loss. It’s a thriller that doesn’t thrill – it brutalises.
Masterfully, it does so not by showing us the act of violence so much as the lead up and the aftermath. Actual moments of conflict are rare. Instead, Ramsay forces us to dwell on the consequences: pooled blood, scarred bodies, a spectacle lens holed by a bullet, broken furniture – and broken people.
Chief among them is, of course, our man Joe, a man so marked by a life of pain and horror that he can only dish it back out again in a way that hopefully brings some redress to the awful, fallen world the film depicts. In between jobs he dotes on his aged mother, with whom he lives, and contemplates suicide. Intermittent flashbacks hint at terrible experiences throughout his life – a violent childhood, military and law enforcement service marked by atrocity – but the film astutely refuses to make his drives and personal philosophy explicit, leaving the audience to make their own inferences.
What is explicit is his capacity for dealing out damage, with a ball peen hammer his weapon of choice. Viewers might take some vicarious satisfaction as he deploys it on a motley array of pimps and pedos, but Joe doesn’t – he is seemingly capable of feeling anything but pain and sorrow, an oak slab of a man weathered by age and torture. Phoenix is quite mesmerising in the role, bulked up and hollow-eyed, sporting a greying beard and a hunched posture. He cuts an iconic figure, but also a pitiful one; Joe might be the hero of the story, inasmuch as it can be said to have one, but he’s not a role model. Nobody in their right mind would want to be him. Hell, Joe doesn’t even want to be Joe – he’d rather be nothing, but he’ll settle for being invisible.
Invisibility, as the title slyly alludes to, is a big theme here. Joe wants to go unnoticed, presenting as a homeless man when in public, presumably in order to be easily ignored by he civilian world. He takes pains to put himself at several removes from his clients, and is paranoid that the teenage son of one of the contacts he uses to arrange jobs might know where he lives. The subculture he moves through, a demimonde of perverts and predators, is similarly hidden from the waking world. Ramsay shoots this milieu obliquely, her camera peering around corners and through windows, cutting away quickly as though afraid to be caught peeping, heightening the paranoia – we;re seeing secret, confronting things we shouldn’t be seeing, and we’re in trouble if we get caught. We’re afraid to see and w’re afraid to be seen, and its that shield of fear that allows this horrors to flourish behind closed doors, and within the corridors of power.
There’s a conspiracy of course, but it’s lightly sketched. The film isn’t interested in the mechanics of corruption and perversion, it just wants us to know that such things exist. Ultimately, Joe can’t end the systemic abuses he fights no matter how many skulls he shatters with his hammer, but he can save individual victims – not only from those who prey upon them but, crucially, from being scarred to the point of becoming someone like him. He pursues his grim trade not just to punish the wicked and not just to rescue the weak, but to hopefully break the generational cycle of abuse and violence. He doesn’t always succeed; this point is driven home in film’s final movements, which take what could have been framed as a moment of victory and catharsis and instead turn it into one of dawning horror. That feeling stays with you long after the credits roll. You Were Never Really Here leaves a mark, as intended.