You Were Never Really Here

September 7, 2018
Playing piggy back with Joe

Last time we saw Joaquin Phoenix he was playing Jesus Christ in Garth Davis’s lacklustre Mary Magdalene. In Woody Allen’s Irrational Man of 2015, he was a verbose professor of philosophy that Emma Stone found unaccountably attractive. Finally, Phoenix has been given his ideal role – as Joe, a hired killer, in Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here.

We grow uncomfortably close to Joe in a film in which he’s barely off-screen. He spends the whole time staring out at us – wild-eyed, silent and traumatised, sporting a luxuriant Unabomber beard. His weapon of choice is a hammer from the hardware store, but he’s equally happy to blow his enemies away with a gun. He also does a mean head-butt.

This is a bleak and disturbing story, but the violence is strangely muffled. We don’t watch Joe pounding away at his opponents to the accompaniment of cracking and squelching sounds. We see him approaching a conflict, hammer in hand, then walking away from a prone body, blood dripping from his implement. In one sequence we observe him on grainy, black-and-white security footage as he inflicts a whole lot of carnage.

It’s gorey, but not gross. What really gets under one’s skin is Jonny Greenwood’s eerie soundtrack that burbles and buzzes quietly in the background. When Joe spies the hammer rack in the hardware shop the volume ratchets up.

To begin with it’s hard to know what Joe actually does. The first scenes are set in a cheap hotel, where he is straightening a bed cover and getting rid of a teenage girl’s personal effects. A quick glimpse of a blood-stained hammer makes everything even more creepy. Is this going to be a film about a pedophile child murderer? A serial killer?

The uncertainty is sustained as we watch Joe return to to the family home that he shares with his elderly mother (Judith Roberts), who just happens to be watching Psycho on TV. Alone in his room Joe fantasises about self-harm. He asphyxiates himself with plastic bags and plays with a knife. Throughout the movie he is tortured by flashbacks: an abusive childhood, a horrifying incident while serving as a soldier in the Middle East, a container-load of dead Asian girls.

Joe’s a sick puppy, but it turns out that he’s actually a good guy – of sorts. He makes a living by seeking out child abusers, and returning the kids to their parents. He works through a kind of agent, McCleary (John Doman), who gives him assignments and arranges payment.

For his next task Joe is required to rescue a senator’s daughter who has been imprisoned in a bordello for men with a taste for underaged girls. The senator, Albert Votto (Alex Manette), wants Joe to hurt his daughter’s captors, and is met with a silent stare of assent. Joe goes about the task with his usual efficiency, but before he can turn the girl, Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), over to her father, everything starts to spiral out of control.

I won’t reveal any more of the plot, yet as the body count climbs the film ascends to a new level, with a series of set pieces that are not soon forgotten. There is, for instance, a scene with Joe floating underwater in a cruciform pose, suspended between his desire for death, and his urge to help Nina. Then there’s a scene in which Joe lies on the floor next to a man he has just shot, holding the victim’s hand as he bleeds out. In the background the radio plays Charlene singing “I’ve been to paradise, but I’ve never been to me…” Both men sing along in feeble, whispery tones.

It’s moments like these that have given Lynne Ramsay such an exalted reputation, even allowing that this is only her fourth feature in almost 20 years. Her previous effort was We Need to Talk About Kevin, in 2011, a slice of suburban horror equally light on dialogue, equally rich in flashbacks and brooding atmospherics. Ramsay’s distinctive camera style has us either looking deeply into the eyes of a character or looking through their eyes, seeing the world in a dissociated manner.

We feel as if we’re in the room with Joe when he’s having his flashbacks. There are times when we might actually be in his head – not an especially desirable residence. Joe is no crazed vigilante like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, nor is he that stock character: ‘an ordinary, decent man driven to extremes’, which is Charles Bronson’s sorry fate in Michael Winner’s exploitative Death Wish films. If Joe is a vigilante it’s not because he’s fired with moral indignation or a need for revenge, it’s because he’s possessed by a demon that can’t be exorcised. He dispenses death so easily because he is always seeking his own death, dreaming of oblivion. He keeps pushing to the brink and pulling back, unable to shake the suspicion that he may, after all, have something to live for.

You Were Never Really Here
Directed by Lynne Ramsay
Written by Lynne Ramsay, after a novel by Jonathan Ames
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Judith Roberts, Ekaterina Samsonov, John Doman, Alex Manette, Scott Price, Alessandro Nivola
UK/France/USA, rated M, 89 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, 8 September, 2018