When you break past a certain point, love becomes nothing more than just this obscure thing. It's an intangible nothingness, a figment of your imagination that you want to believe in like you want to be in Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy or any other of those imaginary childhood characters we construct for our children because without them they learn far too quickly that love isn't real and evil is incredibly real.
If you're the kind of reader who's bothered by film criticism that becomes personal, then you'd best stop reading now because You Were Never Really Here isn't the kind of film that lets you leave the experience without processing through your own shit along the way. If you're already broken, You Were Never Really Here will break you even more and writer/director Lynne Ramsay isn't particularly concerned about putting you back together.
That's your job. Some will. Some won't.
That's how life works.
Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) is irrevocably broken, a possibility of which we don't like to consider all that much in our society. We like to convince ourselves that love is real and all you have to believe and everything's gonna' be alright.
Sometimes, everything's not alright. Sometimes, you get broken so much inside that your presence, whatever's left of it, no longer fits within society in any socially acceptable way.
Sometimes, you're just plain too fucked up to ever fall in love or get married or have kids or work a normal job or do anything except bleed into your own coffee and laugh inappropriate laughter.
That's Joe, really. He's not masked here as some misunderstood good guy just looking for a chance. He's also not exploited by Ramsay and twisted into some personification of evil. He's simply one broken, fucked up dude who does broken, fucked up things because society does even more broken and fucked up things and sometimes, more frequently than we'd ever want to think about, it takes somewhat beyond repair to confront the pure fucking evil that exists in the hearts of men and women everywhere.
You Were Never Really Here is the latest film from Lynne Ramsay to go places that contemporary cinema seldom goes, not in some easy to watch, made for the screen kind of way but in the kind of way that shifts your soul and changes your DNA. Truthfully, I don't know who You Were Never Really Here is made for because if you thought Ramsay's We Need to Talk About Kevin was a difficult film you ain't seen nothin' yet.
You Were Never Really Here is unrelentingly and unapologetically brutal in an emotional sense, less concerned with the physicality of violence than the emotional and institutional underpinnings that demand its existence. In the film's earliest scenes, we meet Joe as he goes about the only daily life he could possibly have, a sort of shadowy figure working for some sort of shadowy figure (John Doman) doing his shadowy job with stunning precision and pristine clarity. He's an enforcer of sorts, a war vet and former federal agent whose experiences with brutality started early as evidenced by flashbacks perfectly woven into the tapestry of You Were Never Really Here.
Joe is the kind of guy who might've had hope if he'd been reached early enough, but he wasn't reached early enough and there's just some point in life when that evil took over and began to define everything he is and everything he does.
Joe enforces something resembling justice, recovering kidnapped young girls from sexual predators and doing so by any means necessary and, often times, by the most relentlessly brutal means necessary because the folks who pay him to recover their kids aren't interested in anything resembling gentle justice.
They want the fuckers to hurt.
When a potential client indicates that he's heard Joe can be brutal, Joe responds in an almost genteel way "I can be."
Indeed, he can be.
You Were Never Really Here isn't some psychologically twisted Death Wish re-imagining, though. If anything, Joe is closer to Travis Bickel, a psychologically damaged man trying to somehow survive this world not because it matters in his own life but because, just maybe, he can keep some other human from experiencing the kind of brokenness that no human being should ever have to experience.
We get peephole glimpses at a better Joe, but every single time it tries to surface it gets beaten down and exploited and subjected to just enough trauma that it's almost like Joe can see some shadow resembling light but can never quite reach it.
The light is over there. No, wait. Maybe it's over there. I'd swear that I saw it around here somewhere.
It's ever elusive.
Joe's weapon of choice is a ball-peen hammer, the sound of which collides with human bone is brought to quietly graphic life by sound designer Paul Davies in such a way that even as I write these words I'm hearing the sound.
I'm flinching as I hear Jonny Greenwood's stellar, sparse yet dissonant score that makes me feel like "best ever" is on constant replay for a composer who keeps doing better and better and better work. I'd heard Greenwood's score before watching the film and, quite honestly, it didn't quite connect for me.
I didn't get it. I listened to Greenwood's score as I watched You Were Never Really Here and now I can't separate the two, I hear the sounds and I see the visions and I see the visions and I hear the sounds. The tapestry is unbroken.
You Were Never Really Here comes in at right about 90 minutes and there isn't a single shot wasted. Joe Bini's editorial work here is simply stellar, precise and devoid of anything resembling extraneous. There isn't a single shot I'd take away and there's, quite literally, nothing else I wanted from the experience.
Cinematographer Thomas Townend's lensing work here is intimate yet not transparent, brutal yet not gory in the ways in which Townend manages to communicate Ramsay's story in layers upon layers that demand your attention. Townend avoids broad strokes. Shots that would feel like gimmicks in most films feel like a different sort of cinematic landscape here, from flashbacks that manifest as shards of memory and psychological warfare to rapid cut-aways from graphic violence that make their point without exploiting the story.
Then, there's Joaquin Phoenix.
It's hard to describe what Phoenix does here, but what he does here is nothing short of masterful. It seems like every film that Phoenix does I convince myself that I'm not a Phoenix fan only to be completely blown away by his work. Phoenix has given some of the most memorable performances of the last decade ranging from Johnny Cash in Walk the Line to Freddie Quell in The Master to Theodore in the criminally under-appreciated Her and even Doc in Inherent Vice among others. To say that I'm beyond excited about Phoenix's upcoming turn as quadriplegic cartoonist John Callahan in Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot is an understatement and by year's end we've even got Phoenix tackling the role of Jesus in Mary Magdalene.
As Joe, Phoenix notches one of his best performances to date, a performance for which he was recognized as Best Actor at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival. Phoenix's Joe is unfathomably tragic, a sort of personified ghost story of sorts who never looks like the menacing thugs and suicidal psychotics we always see in movies because, unlike the vast majority of those actors playing those characters, Phoenix is less consumed by showing off as a master thespian and far more consumed with responding to anything and everything that surrounds him. Phoenix's is a quiet performance that screams at you. He's like that friend we all have whom we hope and pray will somehow find their way in life but deep down we know it ain't never gonna' happen.
There are moments of tenderness, incredibly brief ones, such as when Joe is caring for his elderly mother (Judith Roberts), a frail presence slowly drifting away from Joe with Alzheimer's but once in a while they have a moment and you realize that Joe could have been, probably should have been, a decent human being.
When Joe is hired to rescue a state senator's teenage daughter, Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), the aura of danger is overwhelming and it becomes apparent that Joe, despite being the right guy for the job, may very well be the wrong guy for the job. Things go awry, it's almost predictable but perfect in how it plays out, and Joe loses the girl and sets himself off on a downward spiral.
Much of You Were Never Really Here reminds me of the literary work of Andrew Vachss, a lawyer who works exclusively representing children and a novelist whose Burke novels immerse themselves in worlds just like this one created so beautifully in Jonathan Ames's original source material and is Ramsay's mostly faithful adaptation. I hesitate to use the word humor to describe any aspect of You Were Never Really Here, but as anyone who has ever worked in society's darkness can tell you ... sometimes you laugh so you won't cry or throw stuff or break stuff or just plain kill yourself or somebody else.
There are going to be people who despise You Were Never Really Here. They'll say that Ramsay doesn't do enough exploring of the pedophilic world that is central to its story. They'll say we're not given that cathartic experience we always expect when someone so seemingly dark manages to do something so incredibly filled with light.
Ignore them. You Were Never Really Here isn't Taken or Death Wish or even Taxi Driver. You Were Never Really Here is a cinematic beast all its own and it's exactly the film that it needs to be.
I don't know if it's a masterpiece, because I'm still wiping the blood-stained tears from my eyes.
There's a shard, just maybe, of hope somewhere drowning within the pools of blood left by Joe's ball-peen hammer. There's something resembling light, or at least shimmering gray, that seems to be flickering away off in the distance through some tiny, weather-beaten peephole and it's impossible to know if Joe will ever be able to reach it but by the end of You Were Never Really Here you'll want him to reach it and you'll find yourself wondering if Nina is ever gonna' reach it or if she's bound to become another Joe.
Because there's always another Joe.
You Were Never Really Here opens up in my home city of Indy at the Landmark Keystone Art Cinema on 4/20/18 and it's a must see for anyone who demands cinema that challenges every fiber of your being and a film unquestionably features what will be remembered as one of the finest performances of the year. For Ramsay, it's four films in a row that have been damn near masterpieces - Ratcatcher, Morvern Callar, We Need to Talk About Kevin, and now You Were Never Really Here.
In case you haven't gotten my point, You Were Never Really Here is a masterpiece.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic