Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Ekaterina Samsonov, Alessandro Nivola, Alex Manette, John Doman, Judith Roberts
Director: Lynne Ramsay
Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
A jet plane engine roars. A female voice begins counting down in a hushed voice. The sound of stretching plastic is deafening. A man's face is encased, mouth ajar, breathing heavily. And so begins Lynne Ramsay's You Were Never Really Here; an artful, though mostly ponderous, attempt to deconstruct the grungy hit man exploitation movie.
In typical Ramsay fashion (she of Ratcatcher, Morven Callar, and We Need To Talk About Kevin fame), the narrative here is fractured; with jagged editing, heightened sound design, and rhythmic visual cues. The man with his face covered in a plastic bag is Joe; a tortured, PTSD-ridden loner played by Joaquin Phoenix whose tasked with rescuing underage girls from sex rings. True to the "God's lonely man" template, ala Taxi Driver, Joe doesn't talk much, but broods a lot under muscly frame, slumped shoulders, and gnarled beard. He's the kind of guy prone to violence who doesn't actually enjoy it; stricken with past trauma that makes his head-crushing attacks via ball pein hammer something of a coping mechanism.
Initially, You Were Never Really Here is effective at locating the disorienting sensation of living on a planet teeming with human garbage. As Joe lumbers into a killing spree en route to rescuing another teen girl, Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), the daughter of a powerful local politician, Ramsay's elliptical approach conjures an off-kilter mood. Additionally, Jonny Greenwood's atmospheric score modulates between his patented off-timed strings/violin motifs and some sleazy 80's synths, accentuating the film's descent into human depravity.
However, it soon becomes apparent that the film isn't concerned with the character of Joe or telling a compelling story. The use of obvious visual metaphors--self-suffocation, a childhood beset by an abusive father wielding a hammer, really?--operate as cheap short-hand for character depth, and the brief snippets of Joe's memories from his time in the war feel shoehorned in to account for the PTSD angle. Additionally, the film's handling of violence; obscuring the impact of Joe's attacks through blocking, security camera footage, and contrived camera placement, ultimately lends the enterprise an impersonal quality. This detached style has worked wonders for Ramsay in the past, but here it distances us from Joe's inner turmoil and the consequences of his actions. In a way, Ramsay almost seems embarrassed by the kind of exploitation trash her film has its roots in.
Since You Were Never Really Here isn't saying anything interesting about PTSD, corrupt politicians, or the nature of violence, it's up to the nightmarish mood, Greenwood's ever present score, and Phoenix's physically commanding performance to keep us engaged, and for a while, this is enough. In particular, Phoenix finds small moments of dark humor in a largely nonverbal role (his affection for green jelly beans and gentle mocking of his elderly mother with Psycho references are highlights), giving us yet another variation on the war-torn, broken soul; ala Freddie Quell from Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master. Sadly, there just isn't enough material here for the talented actor to make Joe's unhinged mental state emotionally or dramatically persuasive enough for us to care about what happens to him.
As You Were Never Really Here trudges along, there's a sense in which Ramsay's single-minded aesthetic gives the film a repetitive kind of lucidity. However, for every effectively plucked Greenwood string and lethal swing of the hammer, there's a sequence which invites chuckles at its determined self-seriousness. Most egregious is a moment where Joe walks solemnly into the depths of a lake, which beat for beat, feels almost exactly like the end of Phoenix's 2010 mocumentary I'm Still Here; a film which poked fun at the kind of high-art pretensions Ramsay's film seems to be reveling in.
There's a fatalism to Joe, which is exemplified by Phoenix's physicality, that could have connected to rescuing and "saving" Nina from a cycle of depraved men, but the film shows little interest in this. The young teens being kidnapped and raped by sleazy politicians are simply used as devices for Joe's personal journey into the void, and how exactly this elaborate network of pedophiles operates isn't explored either. Meanwhile, Samsonov's Nina is reduced to speaking all her dialogue with a stoic flatness, consisting mostly of lines like, It's okay, Joe. The reason? Well, she has experienced unspeakable horrors and is trapped inside an art film. This is the main problem with You Were Never Really Here. For all its stark beauty, blunt violence, and curdling dread, it's a film seemingly uninterested in the moral quandaries of a man cut off from hope and redemption, deadly ball pein hammer in hand.