There’s a certain lack of risk that exists in modern day filmmaking. Where once films like Taxi Driver, Chinatown, and Bonnie and Clyde told daring stories where the graphic content was paired perfectly with emotional weight and consequence and served with a garnish of groundbreaking filmmaking, nowadays it is hard to find any two of these risks in the same film. Sure, we get violence, or emotion, or boundary-pushing cinema, but never do we see them combined to show the weight of human suffering the way New Hollywood once did. This lament is a long-about way of saying thank God for Lynne Ramsey, who is still willing to take risks, to turn her unique eye to a well-worn genre and breathe her heart and soul into it to create a wholly modern, wholly original masterpiece of suffering, sacrifice, and beauty.
Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) has never recovered from his time in the Iraq War or as an FBI agent, and his post-traumatic stress disorder is gradually getting worse. When we meet him, he is trying to suffocate himself in a plastic bag. However, he struggles to go through with the act, as he is needed to accomplish the only two missions he has in life: take care of his ailing mother (Judith Roberts) and perform his job efficiently. That job is to locate underage runaways and, if necessary, deal out brutal justice to those who have or wish to do them harm. When New York state senator Albert Votto (Alex Manette) calls upon Joe to find his missing daughter Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), last seen being held in a brothel downtown. What follows is a dark journey through conspiracies, Joe’s psyche, and the hellscape that is the modern world.
On its surface, You Were Never Really Here doesn’t sound all that special or original. That man turned to violence by his troubled past trying to rescue an innocent while inflicting the wrath of God upon the men responsible is one of Hollywood’s oldest stories, ranging from the Western to Logan to Death Wish to this film’s spiritual predecessor, Taxi Driver. However, while it is true that the genre itself is mostly unoriginal, what makes Ramsey’s magnum opus truly stand out is the way she manages to explore her violent, corrupt world and its silent protector while still choosing to look for and locate hope despite the violently nihilistic surroundings. One of the earliest indicators of her intentions is the fact that while this is an incredibly graphic film, we are never privy to the violence occurring. Oh, don’t get me wrong, we see the aftermath – the spray of blood, the splattering of brains, the broken bodies, but the incidents that spark these results occur solely offscreen or just out of frame. This ends up serving two purposes. The first is that it never allows us to glorify the actions of our protagonist. Too often revenge/vigilante flicks fetishize the violence that our hero is performing, and for good reason – the men that are being brutalized are often murderers or, as is the case here, child rapists. By refusing to let us sensationalize these actions, and instead only showing us the consequences, it forces us to understand just how brutal and ugly this world is, even if it is necessary for all of this to be done. It also makes each frame of blood and residue feel more visceral, standing out to us in the same way it would stand out to Joe, or any individual with PTSD. We too must live in the aftermath of what he has done, and must deal with the consequences of his actions. The second reason this choice is so important is that it forces us to look away from the violence and instead towards the little things that truly make life worthwhile. In Ramsey’s vision, the best way towards a better world isn’t to dwell in the personal hell we’ve created – it’s to focus on the small moments of kindness and warmth that make the world a better place. Moments like Joe sharing water and soda with a scared and scarred little girl to show her that he isn’t the type of monster she’s used to; like two men once determined to kill each other holding hands as one passes away; like finding the perfect jelly bean in a batch and savoring it despite the trauma of the world around you. These are the small moments that Ramsey focuses on, and it’s what makes her a very special, very unique filmmaker. She has a way of empathizing with the broken men at the heart of her stories while never letting them off the hook for the horrors they inflict, be they heroic like Joe or immoral like We Need To Talk About Kevin’s titular role. She likes to explore the characters responsible for filling the world with death and abuse, and trying to find a way to see the light in spite of it all. It makes her a one in a million director, and it helps elevate her films above the genre confines they normally exist within.
Of course, the best way to elevate genre filmmaking is to demonstrate a true command over the visual medium, and luckily Ramsey can do just that. Each frame in this film is a poem in and of itself, and Ramsey uses the camera, the score, the sound, and more as a pencil for writing them. This is electric filmmaking, balancing the themes with a kinetic force that brings them to life. Thomas Townend works the camera to his benefit, crafting an incredibly cool, incredibly intricate black-and-white CCTV sequence that is cool right up until it becomes shocking and sickening in the best possible ways. This sequence is only outdone by an underwater sequence that will take your breath away in its unyielding beauty. Meanwhile, Jonny Greenwood keeps things moving along with a hauntingly modern electronic beat that is reminiscent of Drive and yet wholly its own entity. And editor Joe Bini cuts the film randomly and brutally, creating a nightmarish hellscape of missing memories and quick shots of adrenaline right to the heart. At the helm of it all is Ramsey, conducting this symphony with the static austereness of Bergman, the emotional weight of Fassbinder, and the thematically nihilistic hope of New Hollywood. It is a shame that the climax of the film rapidly becomes unraveled – what should be the film’s centerpiece feels muddled, hard to follow, and ultimately rushed in a way the rest of the film never did. However, I’m almost sort of glad that it does – while it ends up leaving unintentional questions for the audience that should have been answered, it also makes the final scene all the more haunting, hopeful, and shocking, all at the same time. This is a masterful film, full of masterful images and sounds and ideas.
It’s hard to talk about the acting of this film, as every character serves as a plot point more than an individual, in order to further the emotional arc of Joe. Luckily, Joe is played by the one and only Joaquin Phoenix, who gives it his all in one of his greatest performances to date. Phoenix plays Joe with an incredible heart, warm and open when he gets around innocent children and his loving mother. However, we also understand where his dark violence comes from, as Phoenix’s eyes intercut with flashbacks tell us everything we need to know. Phoenix gives us a different kind of action hero, one who is broken and beyond all hope and help, and it is truly a performance for the ages, standing toe to toe with Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle, and perhaps even coming out on top. Meanwhile, Samsonov is my biggest disappointment in the film. Not because she isn’t great – she is – but because she is given so little to do, it not only wastes her talent, but it also points out that the abuse of young girls is nothing more than a plot point to the film overall, something I absolutely hate in films like this. Characters are people, not plot points or symbols, and they should be treated accordingly. Still, she will absolutely melt your heart in the film’s finale, and she truly does feel like a girl who has been hurt her entire life and finally finds somebody to care for her. And of the few speaking roles that exist outside of these two, I also want to give credit to Scott Price in a small role as a hit man. I won’t spoil his scene here, but you’ll know it when you see it, and it will be the one image you leave the film with.
You Were Never Really Here is expert filmmaking at its finest. It is a modern day Divine Comedy – one man’s trip into Hell and his subsequent climb towards Paradise. We’ll never know if Joe made his way to salvation. I’m not sure if he knows either. All we know is that Lynne Ramsey has crafted a modern day classic about one man’s quest to redeem and prove himself as a means of escaping his pain, and who wants to fix the world that his people have destroyed. It is easily one of the best films to come out of Hollywood in a long time, and it is one that I will be thinking about for a long time to come.