MOVIE REVIEW: You Were Never Really Here
Official selection of the 2017 Cannes Film Festival
YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE-- 4 STARS
The weapon of choice of Joe, the gruff contract killer of You Were Never Really Here played by Joaquin Phoenix, is an industrial ball peen hammer from his trusty local hardware store in New York. The film matches the qualities of this repurposed tool as an armament. The instrument and the art prefer the mauling nature of cold steel. Frozen by disturbing memories, the blunt object that is Lynne Ramsay’s award-winning potboiler is far more hulking than a quick death by bullet.
LESSON #1: THE BLUDGEON ROUTE IS EFFECTIVE-- Both the weaponized hammer and the movie are abstract in their elegance which makes for an intentionally tense and grim experience to either use or witness. Brutality is peak. Beating something is messy, but the damage is far more catastrophic and sometimes permanent compared to something finer or sharper.
Joe (Phoenix) is a hired gun with fences and contacts specializing in pursuing the perpetrators of sex trafficking and rescuing the female victims. With his graying long hair and shaggy beard, Joe carries the scars of past wounds and treads about as a hunched brute. Unassuming and disheveled as he may look, he is rock steady with that hammer and his work.
The man lives with his aging and ailing mother (Judith Roberts of Orange is the New Black), his only anchor to what most would consider a more normal life. Quickly do we learn that this calm home wasn’t always that way. This broken man reaches the stress points of asphyxiating himself or performing breathing exercises to push away startling mental pain. The flickers of horrifying memories that trigger his unraveled reflection spread between his time in the military and all the way back to unhappy childhood memories. Those glimpses are all we need to send our mind racing and heart quickening like his own.
When Joe is tasked to find and recover Senator Alex Votto’s (steady supporting actor Alex Manette) daughter Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov from Wonderstruck), he is given the extra instruction to make it hurt for the captors. They came to the right place. Increased high profile connections to Governor Williams (Face/Off’s Alessandro Nivola) turns a few tables and adds more difficulty and mystery for this avenging angel with dark and fractured wings. You Were Never Really Here twists suspense with a brazen edge.
Hounding our senses like a musical wrath is the extraordinary score from Phantom Thread Oscar nominee Jonny Greenwood, branching out from his usual Paul Thomas Anderson collaborations. His pulsating score breathes a pervasively strong sense of atmosphere into the film, standing almost as a co-star to this show. Behind the music and eerie song choices is an excellent sound design by Paul Davies (‘71) that makes every creaky step and punished body part shiver down our spine. Picture perfect framing variations by cinematographer Thomas Townend (Attack the Block) guide us through these seedy underworld with patient revelation. These artistic measures serve to highlight the on-screen star and the off-screen wisdom that determine and lead the film’s quality.
Far from any level of plain and simple, Joaquin Phoenix astonishingly goes to another place with roles like You Were Never Really Here, The Master, and Her over the course of the last decade. No one in the business extends the dark range of melancholy better or greater than Phoenix. In this film, it’s quite telling when a damsel victim has to tell Joe he’s OK and not the other way around. Joaquin’s grizzled and fragile performance veers with turbulent pendulum swings between those two emotional extremes. Few actors can accomplish that latitude convincingly. This film role earned Phoenix Best Actor honors at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival and it is quite apparent to see why.
Similar high praise at Cannes last summer was awarded to writer-director Lynne Ramsay (We Need to Talk About Kevin) for her screenplay to adapt raconteur author Jonathan Ames’s novella of the same name. Tautly disciplined, Ramsey’s narrative builds a disturbing and methodical film. As complimentary as that trait is, You Were Never Really There is missing some minor shadings of fleshed-out depth to stiffen the refinement on display between the bursts of violent action. Even so, the purpose is resolute. Ramsey wisely keeps her exposition at the most minimal level, dispersing its backstory clues through flickers of flashbacks and mundane activities. It is a measure of less-is-more fortitude greatly unlike similar movie portraits of death-dealing men that choose to over-narrate and spoon-feed every possible quirk and detail. Challenging patience and constitution are required and rewarded.
LESSON #2: DON’T GO AFTER A MAN’S FAMILY-- For the kidnappers, they have targeted the family members of powerful men. They may be rich marks with deep pockets, but that doesn’t mean those victims wouldn’t use the very same means to pay for brutal retribution in the form of men like Joe as easily as they could pay a ransom. That mistake is even greater when the same criminals think they can mess with Joe’s family too.
LESSON #3: POST-TRAUMATIC STRESS DISORDER AS A STIMULANT-- As debilitating as Joe’s past stressors are, they also fuel him. Like the aforementioned pendulum of Phoenix’s performance, when Joe reaches a low, the weight of the negative vision swings him back into corrective action. It’s unhealthy that he needs that trigger point, but it counts as a push, and a deadly one at that.