On the surface, director Lynne Ramsay‘s You Where Never Really Here is a film about a hitman fighting to rescue a young damsel in distress. Doesn’t sound like anything new. Bursting out from under that surface, however, is something very different.
Joaquin Phoenix offers something that few, maybe none, of his contemporaries can. He is almost elemental in his physicality. His tortured Joe, here, is a maelstrom of dysfunction, maladjustment and suicidal trauma.
Recurring, and perhaps ever so slightly overused, flashbacks enlighten the roots of his fractured existence. And here in lies the film’s depth and impact. The comparisons to Martin Scorsese‘s seminal Taxi Driver are valid and fair, if not well earned. There are almost certainly visual references, nods and, dare it be said, homage to that classic throughout Ramsay’s film. It’s more a tonal piece about the realities of living with post-traumatic stress disorder, the violent retributional rage and suicidal abandon that go along with that, rather than a conventional narrative film. The plot is largely secondary, in fact, the focus being so prevalent on Phoenix’s characterisation of a man not broken but shattered, destroyed, by the terrible things he’s seen and done. Questions are subtly but powerfully raised about the consequences when our society asks certain terrible but necessary things of the few, so that the many don’t have to.
Although an incredibly violent film, a very deliberate and overt decision has been made not to actually show any of it, not in any conventional glamourised style anyway. It’s almost all aftermath; cause and effect. Flashes of image and sound rather than gory close-ups and multiple angle showy action editing. In fact, as is so often the case, the marketing for the film and, in particular, the trailer are misleading. This isn’t your classic action revenge movie with Joaquin Phoenix playing the badass hero. Ironic that such a dishonest portrayal of the film is used to promote it, as it is incredibly raw in its honesty as a piece of filmmaking. A thing can be both raw and beautiful. Like a crude diamond. And it’s fair to say that Ramsay harnessed that kind of performance from Phoenix with considerable craft.
Oh, and whether you love or hate an ambiguous ending, then here you get the possibility of three. The film’s title possibly making sense for the first time just as the credits roll. Not for the faint-hearted but by cleverly subverting its genre, You Were Never Really Here allows itself to say more. And Phoenix, again, is terrifyingly magnetic.