Right from the opening scene, we know we’re in trouble. The shadows, the stony expression on Joaquin Phoenix’s careworn face, the off-kilter, jagged quality of Jonny Greenwood’s score: everything tells us that You Were Never Really Here is one of those films that isn’t going to just let us sit back in our cinema seats and enjoy the ride.
Loosely adapted from the novel of the same name by Jonathan Ames, it’s a tough, distinctly modern take on the classic neo-noir thriller. The story sounds like a time-worn one, but the way it’s handled by its director Lynne Ramsay (We Need To Talk About Kevin, Morvern Callar) casts it in a new light.
Phoenix plays an archetypal terse anti-hero with a past: he’s Joe, an ex-military man turned private investigator and all-round heavy who appears to specialize in locating abducted children. Joe’s latest case involves the missing daughter of a wealthy New York politician; Joe’s hired to track the girl down and exact bloody justice on those who took her. Once Joe starts digging a little deeper, though, it becomes horribly apparent that there’s a greater conspiracy at work.
A few decades ago, Joe might have been a private eye like Philip Marlowe: a hard-drinking, chain-smoking private eye. Certainly, author Raymond Chandler would recognize some of the elements in You Were Never Really Here from his own novels: the contrast between wealthy guys in their wood-panelled offices and the malaise of the city outside, the corruption and underlying air of sleaze. Ramsay takes all this and turns it into something more like a character study than a conventional mystery-thriller.
There’s a toughness and a sculptural quality to Lynne Ramsay’s filmmaking that makes her perfectly suited to this kind of dark, mesmerizing tale. Her lens is never far from a scratched, worn surface, whether it’s Joaquin Phoenix’s greying beard or the old wallpaper in his mother’s home. You Were Never Really Here is a thriller, but it’s also about the inside of its protagonist’s brain; Ramsay makes several, seemingly conscious allusions to Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, and in a similar fashion, we see everything from Joe’s distorted, traumatized worldview.
More middle-of-the-road thrillers like Taken are about how much damage the good guy will do to the bad guys. You Were Never Really Here is about how much damage Joe is going to do to himself. Like a primed grenade, Joe constantly fizzes with anger and self-loathing; he’s a lost soul who appears to have lost parts of himself at certain decisive moments in the past. A tour of duty in the Middle East; brutal childhood abuse from his father – these psychological scars jab at Joe’s memory, and appear on the screen as quick cuts that mimic how the human mind will suddenly throw up old traumas like slivers of glass.
The use of proximity is partly what makes You Were Never Really Here such an intense film – almost exhaustingly so, despite its taut 90 minute duration. Joe’s weapon of choice is a hammer rather than a gun – the kind of instrument that, as we’ve seen in such films as Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Oldboy, and Drive, can make us wince just at the sight of it. Selecting a hammer means that Joe has to get in close to take down his prey; Ramsay, in a brilliant show of restraint, makes these moments the least intimate in the film. As Joe enters one building in the first half, we see the bloody events from the vantage point of a CCTV camera. Other murders occur just out of frame, or out of focus.
Joe’s memories, meanwhile, are right in our face: they’re all close-ups and unsettling blasts of sound. This way, the film itself takes on some of Joe’s volatility- from beginning to end, Ramsay refuses to let us settle into a familiar rhythm, whether it’s via action scenes that aren’t really action scenes or quiet moments that turn out to be anything but.
Phoenix’s performance is constantly mesmerising: it’s interesting to contrast Joe with another of his outsider characters, the forlorn everyman in Her, Theodore Twombly, who falls in love with his computer’s sentient operating system. The director of the latter, Spike Jonze, once told Den of Geek UK‘s Matt Edwards that Phoenix doesn’t really act – that he has to feel the reality of the moment:
As opposed to other actors who are like, ‘Okay, I don’t get it but I’ll act it for you’, he doesn’t know how to act. He’d tell you himself, he doesn’t know how to act. If he’s faking it, he won’t do it. And so, I think in that way, he’s intense, but intense in the best way, intense in the most beautifully sincere way.
With this being the case on Her, We can only guess at what kind of psychological backflips Phoenix had to perform to create the ball of anger and loneliness that he brings to the screen in Ramsay’s movie.
Through Phoenix, Ramsay seems to have found a particularly modern kind of muse. Joe could even be described as the best and worst of male-ness, all rolled into one: on the one hand, he’s the kind of mythical hero some guys might like to imagine themselves in an idle moment: chaste, noble, a self-contained warrior who protects the weak and exacts gory justice on the immoral. But at the same time, Joe’s everything that’s tragic and broken about your typical alpha male: self-destructive, monosyllabic, and unable to articulate his pain except through violence.
Maybe it’s this aspect, above all others, that turns You Were Never Really Here from an interesting thriller to a great one. Most of the great noir films past and present have come from male filmmakers, whether it’s Billy Wilder (Double Indemnity), John Dahl (Red Rock West, The Last Seduction), Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin) or the Coen Brothers (Blood Simple, Fargo). Ramsay takes a standard genre and bends it to her own bleak vision; the hard-bitten private eye with a heart of gold becomes something far more raw and, dare we say it, sad.
It’s interesting to compare You Were Never Really Here to another recent film with an altogether different style behind it: Duncan Jones’ sci-fi thriller, Mute, which appeared on Netflix earlier this year. Both take similar elements from the old noir thriller genre. Both are set in oppressive cities; both are about outsider protagonists who help an innocent child escape a sexually, morally bankrupt hellscape. But where Mute struggled to nail down its tone, You Were Never Really Here finds its focus as soon as the first frame glowers into view.
Joe, like the hero of Mute played by a sad-eyed Alexander Skarsgard, is a compromised, lonely creature, almost like a Frankenstein’s monster: an artificial construct made by the stresses of society, twisted into something weird and self-loathing. Between them, Ramsay and Phoenix make this damaged character into someone fascinating to watch, and sympathetic for the greater part.
Joe may be violent, but we’re constantly shown where that violence comes from. Trauma, yes, but also the kind of gender norms that make men what they are. The kind of norms that throw out old phrases like boys can’t cry, take it like a man, hit first and ask questions later, and so forth. Take all that to its darkest extremes, and Joe is what you get.
Maybe that troubling weapon of choice, the ball pein hammer sums it all up: Joe is a a blunt instrument, waiting to strike.