YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE
Director: Lynne Ramsay
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Ekaterina Samsonov, Judith Roberts, John Doman, Frank Pando, Vinicius Damasceno, Alex Manette, Alessandro Nivola, Scott Price, Jonathan Wilde
MPAA Rating: (for strong violence, disturbing and grisly images, language, and brief nudity)
Running Time: 1:30
Release Date: 4/6/18 (limited); 4/13/18 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | April 12, 2018
Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) is a killer for hire. Within the sphere of people who need or work with such a man, he's known for his brutality. That's appealing to the people who would hire him, because Joe has created a niche market within his trade. He specializes in saving children from people who would hurt, abuse, and exploit innocents. If he can't save them, he will avenge their deaths.
We have grown accustomed to this sort of character in the movies—the professional assassin, the hired gun, the proficient hitman. There's always some kind of hook for these characters. They may be suave. They might be acting under what they believe to be some personal moral code. They may offer witty rejoinders to their targets. They might have a dark, tragic past, and killing is either a form of revenge against the people who wronged them or a kind of atonement for what they perceived as a failure to protect those they loved.
Whatever the hook may be, the point is that there is more to such a character than killing. After all, an audience has to have some reason to connect with such a character. It could be a twisted sense of justice, or it could just be the character's sense of fashion, style, or general coollness.
Writer/director Lynne Ramsay's You Were Never Really Here presents such a character without the frills, without the sense of a higher purpose, without the style, and without many words to speak. Joe is little more than a machine. He exists to kill men who would harm children, but Joe never sees his actions as noble in any way. Any sense of nobility, honor, or justice has died within this man a long time ago.
He kills because he's paid to do so, but we imagine that this is a matter of necessity, not a reason. If he weren't paid, Joe would probably be doing the same thing. We just wouldn't be able to call it a job. Being a hired killer gives him the targets, too, which would be more difficult to find if he were just a solo act.
Adapting Jonathan Ames' book, Ramsay has stripped this character of any personality, except the need to cause pain. It is a need for Joe. When he isn't taking a ball-peen hammer to the bodies and skulls of men who have hurt, raped, or murdered children, he dances with the possibility of injuring or killing himself. Joe will cover his face with a plastic bag. He'll drop a pocketknife toward his foot, moving his leg just before the blade strikes and sticks into the floor. He lives with his elderly mother (Judith Roberts), whom he cares for and pantomimes killing when she starts to get on his nerves a bit.
Pain has been the one constant of his life, and he's not going to change that any time soon—if ever. In the meantime, until either he gets some help (unlikely) or he's dead (a far greater and seemingly imminent possibility), Joe will continue spreading pain against those who deserve it. This, tragically, includes himself. He has the scars on the hulking, brutish frame of his body to serve, if only for himself, as proof of that fact.
He doesn't say much, but Ramsay gives us about as comprehensive an understanding of this character as we can expect. She does so within the very structure of this fractured narrative, which tells the story of Joe hunting and being hunted by a powerful child abuser between nightmarish flashes of the character's past. Ramsay's storytelling reflects the broken mind and soul of this man. Her style, which sees Joe at work through long takes and simple camera movements and some intentionally distancing gimmicks (such as seeing his assault on a child sex ring through security cameras), understands that this man is working on some unstoppable, unappeasable impulse.
The plot is simple. After failing to save a teenage girl and killing at least one of the people responsible, Joe is hired to save the abducted daughter of a state senator (played by Alex Manette). The politician has an address, texted to him by the girl's kidnappers, and wants Joe to hurt these men.
Our protagonist succeeds, saving Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov) and killing everyone in the brownstone house that serves as a den for child abuse. On the news, there's word of the senator's apparent suicide, and soon enough, all of Joe's professional acquaintances start turning up murdered. Someone powerful is out to get Joe and anyone he may know.
The totality of the film is far more complex than that, though. The story itself is straightforward, although it takes some time to piece together such information as Joe's job, what happened during that first assignment (which picks up in media res at the very start), and who is behind the child sex ring and the murders of Joe's associates. It's clear that Ramsay cares little for the story, except in the way that provides an outlet to pick apart who Joe is and what turned him into this passionless but highly effective killer of abusers.
The film lives with Joe and inside his head. From those flashes, which strike Joe without warning and at sometimes inconvenient moments, we learn that he himself was a victim of sustained abuse at the hands of his father (played by Jonathan Wilde). His mother was, too, which helps to explain both his protective and, since the mother didn't do anything to stop the father, antagonistic sides of that relationship. There are a few flashbacks to his time in the military, witnessing a young boy enact the sort of violence that he does now. His experience of life is a long string of traumas, and now, the only trauma arrives when he isn't able to kill the people he feels the need to kill.
This is an unapologetically rough film—violent and despairing about human nature. It's also weirdly but effectively empathetic, particularly in Joe's relationship with Nina (as well as a startlingly tender scene in which Joe stays with a hired goon as life escapes from him). What You Were Never Really Here portrays, with visceral clarity and moral uncertainty, is the toll of abuse—taken in, exacted out, and destined to keep repeating itself.
Copyright © 2018 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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