You Were Never Really Here isn’t just about the rescue of a State Senator’s daughter. Rather an expression of a single man’s existence, ghostly by all extents. The man: Joe, an ex-soldier, is warm, gentle, and violently sadistic, at one moment buying water for the rescued, the next bludgeoning his victims with a ball-point hammer.
Scarred, overweight, incoherently mumbling through a dense beard: Phoenix is nearly unrecognizable as Joe. Director Lynne Ramsay, in her adaptation of Johnathan Ames’s novella, keeps us at an emotional distance from this character, as the film opens with his heavy protracted breathing.
Few know that he exists. Fewer want to know. After burning a picture of a girl, he packs away, in a plastic bag, his hammer and rolled tape. Using back exits to escape, shadowing past cleaning ladies, we know that Joe is a methodical savage vigilante. Some might say that approach precludes us from caring about him. However, we’re only as close to him as he allows of others.
In fact, we know of only one person, his senile mother (Judith Roberts), who’s near to him. When he cares for her, he’s at his gentlest. Entertaining her with light games and songs. Without her, he’d suffocated himself with plastic long ago. Barring that, we know little else of Joe. The tiny shrapnel of his past hits us in short intervals: from dead bodies piled in a storage container to his young mother cowering under the table.
Ramsey isn’t much on plot. Much of You Were Never Really Here feels too outlandish to be believed, as unlikely plot twist after unlikely plot twist follows Joe while he searches for Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), the Senator’s daughter. Obviously a film lives and dies by its plot, but Ramsey’s aim isn’t to tell a story, it’s to distantly examine a man. And though the two, character and plot, are linked, they are not inseparable.
That may feel like I’m moving the goalpost, so to speak. But films hit us in different ways, and art isn’t a checkbox of logical continuation. Instead, I was drawn to Joe. The film never asks me to be drawn to him, but I was. He leaves more questions than answers. To save Nina he’s offered a tidy fee of $57,000. It’s to be believed that Joe is busy in his profession, yet we don’t see the money in his appearance. Much of it may go to the care of his mother, but my hunch is that Joe cares very little for money. He cares for very little for people. For friends. For entertainment. He’s difficult to understand, which is the epicenter for any fascinating character study.
Additionally, I’m not sure anyone else could have played this role but Joaquin Phoenix. While most of his lines are negligible, almost impressionistic, it’s his cohabitation with the character that’s haunting. The humped left shoulder. The weighted limp. His heavy morose breathing. His indelible and furious wail. These components create a character who’s nearly unrelenting in his vicious violence. In fact, he’s a man who’d rather that we’d turn away, yet we are unable to. His brothel takeover is one such occasion. As he torrents through security and perverts, we’re given shifting perspectives through surveillance cameras. These rapacious cuts from one black-and-white camera to the next, is accompanied by a disjointed gleefully repetitious rendition of “Angel Baby.” Putting Joe’s savagery on partial and vicarious display (also, if you want to know how the brothel scene was designed, I’d recommend my interview with the film’s Set Decorator, Kendall Anderson).
The director also intersperses Joe’s outbursts with cruelly ironic humor. A scene of him lying by his dying victim, as the two softly sing Charlene’s “I’ve Never Been To Me,” not only provides levity but also a window into his bi-polar brutality. It’s a moment that I don’t think I’ve ever seen in film, and is one of the many examples of Pheonix’s immense range even in the quietest of instances.
Ramsey also employs camera mounts on cars as the vehicles pass through the city. Often we see clear shots of New York’s skyline, and many times, the environment she’s filming is as indistinguishable as Joe in a crowd. When combined with Johnny Greenwood’s sparse, ambient, propulsionary dark score we become ingratiated into Joe’s chilling psyche. In fact, the strongest part of the film is its mixing of diegetic and non-diegetic sound, which when both are playing are nearly indistinguishable as well.
And though many have compared You Were Never Really Here to Taxi Driver, I feel that comparison does a disservice to Ramsay’s creation as, barring a vigilante saving a young girl in a prostitution ring, there are few similarities. The Travis Bickel character is different in scope and feel from Phoenix’s, and has grander ambitions.
Ramsay’s film is an altogether separate study, asking very little of us. We’re not told to make moralistic judgments. To hate. To love. To fear. We’re not even hoping Joe saves Nina. Instead, we’re hoping to see a man who finds a reason to live. And maybe those stakes are more psychological than emotional. Maybe they don’t concoct us to care for an individual who operates in the shadows of an underground playground. But they do enliven our survivalist instincts, believing that Joe should gasp through the plastic for one last breath of fresh air.