Phoenix delivers breathtaking performance in You Were Never Really Here
Lynne Ramsay’s latest psychological thriller, “You Were Never Really Here,” which received a seven-minute standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festival upon its premier, is a taut examination of the fragmentary nature of identity in contemporary experience that disturbs and disrupts the patterns and assumptions that allow us to feel safe.
There are three elements to this film that make it necessary watching if you are interested in great cinema: 1. Joaquin Phoenix’s tour de force acting; 2. the dynamic, challenging and masterful cinematography; and 3. the use of sound and music to create tension and interweave emotions into highly fraught scenes.
In “You Were Never Really Here,” Phoenix plays Joe, a retired veteran, a dedicated caregiver to his elderly mother, and a fixer who specializes in rescuing abducted young girls who have been sold into sexual slavery. With a ball-peen hammer in hand,
Joe brutally punishes those people who have taken these young girls.
Phoenix’s portrayal of the psychological and physical brutality that have brought him to this fragmentary and complex existence is nothing short of breathtaking. His body carries a rugged violence, which is both a necessary release and a terrible consequence for him, all while his body bears the physical scars that reveal the psychological tolls exacted in creating a man of his character.
Ramsay has become known as one of the greatest directors working today through meticulous drafting of scripts, non-linear narrative structures, and working with some of the best sound designers and composers in film.
Her last film, “We Need to Talk about Kevin,” starred Tilda Swinton as the mother of a boy who has committed a mass shooting in a school and is subsequently forced to deal with the aftermath. Ramsay does not stray from forcing her audience to closely examine and question difficult questions about society and its role in creating violence and destruction in her characters’ lives. Her films also focus on how our social structures and institutions allow children to be treated in unethical ways. The violence in “You Were Never Really Here” is so different from Hollywood portrayals that it bears explanation. Joe’s violence is never glamorous or balletic. There are no choreographed fight scenes. Many of the scenes where we see Joe taking out the security men during his extractions are filmed using static CCTV cameras; his movements are devastating and quick, and there is no time for resistance. But if these moments of violence are filled with surety and ease, then the rest of Joe’s life is a fragmentary construction where the past can return in an instant and destroy any attempt he has made to pull himself into a unified identity.
Much of the film establishes the psychological complexity and inner torment of Joe. I would recommend watching both “Psycho” by Alfred Hitchcock and “Taxi Driver” by Martin Scorsese before watching this film as they are obvious antecedents and citations for what we see. The beauty of Ramsay’s directing is that there
are no easy answers in parsing out Joe’s life. We are given schisms of his past through multi-second memories that are often coupled with jarring and distorting music or sounds that are deeply disturbing. When memories come to Joe, there are images of violence, abuse and death beginning in his young life through to his life as a soldier.
The musical score has been composed by Jonny Greenwood, of Radiohead fame, who has established himself as one of the most dynamic and interesting film composers working today. His score for “There Will Be Blood” is an integral element to that film’s brilliance. The same can be said of his work here. What Greenwood has created is a sonic reflection of the tensions in the film.
This film pits corruption, politics, PTSD, pedophilia, the innocence of children, men’s love of their mothers, and western beliefs surrounding the acceptability of violence in film and media into a form that is nothing short of brilliant.
“You Were Never Really Here” is disruptive and disturbing and you will leave the cinema changed by its content. This film’s perturbation of western society’s comfort with the sexualization of children and the prevalent acceptance of gun-based violence is a beautiful tonic that demands much of the audience, but the rewards for watching are rich.
Joaquin Phoenix in You Were Never Really Here.