Joaquin Phoenix shocked the movie world a couple of years ago when he announced on David Letterman’s show that he was retiring from acting in order to seek a new career as a hip hop artist. Donning a pair of sunglasses indoors and scraggly beard, the acclaimed actor said he was ready to shun the spotlight to start anew. Of course, Joaquin Phoenix had no intention of leaving the world of acting behind, and his announcement was revealed as a staged prank for his mockumentary I’m Still Here. Since emerging from the other side of his self-imposed exile, Phoenix has been delivering the best work of his career. Between The Master, Her, and Inherent Vice, Phoenix has really taken over the mantle of the best actor working today (Sorry, Daniel Day-Lewis, you retired). And now it seems that Phoenix has delivered his best work yet in Lynne Ramsay’s brutal masterpiece You Were Never Really Here.
In You Were Never Really Here, Phoenix doesn’t look too different than he did on Letterman’s couch when announced his “retirement.” The only noticeable difference is the lack of a finely tailored suit and a couple extra grey hairs in the beard. Phoenix stars as Joe, a military vet whose mind is a raging torrent of ghastly thoughts and memories. He’s a man with big beer belly a quite voice rarely utilized. Through a few phone calls and some backchannel communications, Joe can be summoned to carry out dirty work that few are capable of handling. He’ll travel or work in his own town, ballpeen hammer in tow and liberate young women trapped in the hellish world of sex trafficking. But this one job that Joe undertakes pulls him into a twisted conspiracy that reaches the highest corridors of power.
Ramsay’s direction here is absolutely stellar, giving the film a hallucinatory sense to its ghastly nightmare. She transports us into the mind of Joe, rarely subjecting the audience to exposition or little bits of filler. This movie is lean, not an ounce of fat in there. You Were Never Really Here is visceral and intense in its balance of brutal violence and cutthroat suspense. And yet, Ramsay’s use of the violence might be the most interesting thing about You Were Never Really Here. This is a violent film, yes, but it’s not quite as violent as Ramsay would lead you to believe. Gunshots, stabbing, people bludgeoned with hammers happens in the film but Ramsay doesn’t let the camera linger on this brutality and often reframes it with swift edits that leaves much of the horror to the imagination – making it all the more unsettling.
There’s almost an unholy union between Taxi Driver and John Wick in You Were Never Really Here. Ramsay’s screen adaptation of Jonathan Ames’ novel takes the audience into an underworld of sleazy characters and never really wants to explain all the rules and nuances that create this seedy underbelly. Joe is similar to Travis Bickle with a military background and vigilantism. Of course, there’s the young woman that Joe rescues, Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), whose presence brings forth recollections of Jodie Foster’s Iris in Scorsese’s classic. These similarities don’t mean that You Were Never Really Here is simply a revamped version of the ‘70s classic or an arthouse version of John Wick, but it’s simply it’s own unique tale of a broken man seeking redemption through violence.
Some people have raised the point that the film’s plot seems to mirror a rampant right-wing conspiracy theory, PizzaGate, which posits that high-ranking officials within the Democratic Party are operating an underground sex trafficking ring involving children. This only comes up because some of the characters entwined in the film’s plot are politicians. There is absolutely no reason that a film such as You Were Never Really Here, which balances brutality and beauty with cinematic lyricism, should be looked down upon because it’s plot faintly resembles the paranoid delusions of a political fringe – especially considering that the film isn’t overtly political in the least. But I do fear that these deranged individuals will try to coopt the film as proof of their intense and misguided beliefs. Just because some people can’t tell the difference between fact and fiction doesn’t mean that fiction should be punished for too closely resembling the visions of the mad.
You Were Never Really Here is a modern masterpiece, a blend of beauty and brutality that lingers in the mind of viewers long after its brief running time has concluded. Lynne Ramsay continues to establish herself as one of cinema’s most vital voices, a director that you can’t pigeonhole into any particular genre. Joaquin Phoenix continues to rise from the ashes of his unusual publicity stunt and continue to reinvent himself in a variety of ways. I sincerely hope that You Were Never Really Here marks a new fruitful working relationship between Phoenix and Ramsay. The two feed off each other’s energy so incredibly well. Two masters working at the top of their game is a rare thing, but Ramsay and Phoenix make is seem like alchemy.
You Were Never Really Here
- Overall Score
An intense, brutal masterwork from director Lynne Ramsay, You Were Never Really Here features a stunning minimalist performance by Joaquin Phoenix in a movie that feels like the bastard child of Taxi Driver and John Wick.