'You Were Never Really Here': The great intensity of Joaquin Phoenix
Joaquin Phoenix speaks softly and carries a big hammer in “You Were Never Really Here,” Lynne Ramsay’s exploration of the human capacity for brutality. Heavily bearded and physically bulked up, Phoenix plays Joe, a man who exhibits characteristics that, in a more conventional context, would paint him as a psychotic murderer.
In the opening scenes, he sprawls on a motel bed with a plastic bag over his head, stopping shy of suffocating himself. He drops a blood-spattered hammer in the trash on the way out. Back home in New York City, he lives with his mother (Judith Roberts), who appears to be nearly senile; she says she stayed up too late watching “Psycho,” and he lightly chastises her. Consider the reference noted.
But Joe transcends Hitchcock’s Freudian evocations, with Ramsey - adapting Jonathan Ames’ novel - crafting a more complicated portrait of neurosis. Fragmented flashbacks cut sharply into the narrative, revealing past trauma: a vague scene of domestic violence from childhood, soldiers in a desert war, a shipping container full of dead women. Although none of these vivid images offers much more than elements of suggestion, the latter figures heavily in the plot.
Turns out, he’s an assassin for hire, specializing in human traffickers and pedophiles. He’s hired to rescue the daughter of a high-profile senator, who mentions that Joe has a reputation for being brutal. Joe’s response? “I can be.” Well then: “I want you to hurt them,” the senator says.
The film is elevated and artful genre work clearly inspired by “Death Wish” and “Taxi Driver.” Ramsay masterfully entangled suggestive psychology and expressive imagery in “Morvern Callar” and “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” both of them driven by gripping performances from Samantha Morton and Tilda Swinton, respectively. Phoenix anchors “You Were Never Really Here” similarly, developing the most intimidating and intense presence of character in his career, or at least since “The Master.” Astonishingly, his body appears distorted and mangled, a clear reflection of his mind. He’s capable of coldly slaughtering others with a hand tool, a far less impersonal means than, say, a gun. And his frequently repeated near-self-asphyxiation habit seems to be a classic case of a damaged and calloused individual engaging in self-abuse as a desperate attempt to feel something, anything.
Ramsay sidesteps some of the more graphic instances of violence, which amplifies both the tension within action sequences, and the horror of Joe’s vigilantism. It’s as if the camera sometimes can’t bear to watch. His capacity for barbaric justice is excoriating in the moment, and we find ourselves lusting for him to exact it upon some of society’s most reprehensible people.
So we consider the propriety of an eye for an eye, and the idea of violence begetting violence. It seems right, and it seems wrong, and even though we don’t know the details of Joe’s capacity for brutality, his story and affliction are made clear by the precision of Phoenix’s performance and Ramsay’s direction. There’s a message of hope in “You Were Never Really Here,” but it’s embedded beneath layers of scar tissue, perhaps never to see the light. But we know it’s there, and that’s what keeps us absorbed and challenged by this tragedy.
Photo courtesy Amazon Studios
‘You Were Never Really Here’
MPAA rating: R for strong violence, disturbing and grisly images, language, and brief nudity
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Judith Roberts, Ekaterina Samsonov, John Doman
Director: Lynne Ramsay
Run time: 89 minutes