Synopsis: Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) is a for-hire bounty hunter who specialises in rescuing trafficked girls. When he accepts a job to rescue Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), the abducted daughter of a New York State Senator, he stumbles into a conspiracy that has dire consequences for both of them.
1. Occasionally, I engage in a thought exercise entitled ‘What Does The Shitty Version Of This Film Look Like’. With You Were Never Really Here, it’s more of ‘What Does The Straightforward Version Of This Film Look Like’. Here it goes.
The straightforward version of You Were Never Really Here is a dark, brutal, and uncompromising revenge flick that provides visceral thrill and high emotion. Joaquin Phoenix is superb as the avenging angel who learns to feel humanity again in his interactions with Ekaterina Samsonov, and there is a dark irony in how he willingly chooses to shed this humanity in order to rescue the person who brought it out of him. This is the straightforward version of You Were Never Really Here. It is a fine movie. Highly recommended.
This is not the version of the film we get. As such, it is not a fine movie, and I would not say it is ‘highly recommended’.
It is an astounding work of art, and quite possibly my favourite film of 2018 up to this point.
2. First, we need to talk about Lynne Ramsay (clever reference alert!) Heretical as it is, I have never seen a single work of hers. I have heard the plaudits for Ratcatcher, Morvern Callar, and We Need To Talk About Kevin, but for some reason, have never gotten around to watching them (which needs to be rectified ASAP). This means two things – one, that I cannot rely on my usual cheap trick of situating a film within the wider narrative of an auteur’s filmography and two, that I went into this with next to no expectation of what was coming.
It was certainly not this.
3. So, what is this? This is the fractured, fantastical fever dream of someone who watched Taxi Driver on LSD. This is a film that pays no heed whatsoever to played-out notions of ‘story logic’ and ‘plot structure’, that operates on its own unhurried rhythm, shepherded through Ramsay and editor Joe Bini’s elliptical editing. Nowhere is this more clear than its treatment of violence. Again, the straightforward version of the film would probably involve either some form of artfully shot/stylised violence or on the flip side, a grim, matter-of-fact treatment. Either way would have been fine, but this is a film that is not concerned about being fine. Instead, the film keeps the spectre of violence just out of sight but yet always present, in a masterclass of withholding that a narcissistic mother would be proud of. The big central scene where a hammer-wielding Joe busts in to a brothel to rescue Nina is shot through static, black-and-white security cameras, and is edited in such a way that the violence only ever appears for a split second at a time. Unlike your run-of-the-mill revenge thriller, the audience is denied any glee or catharsis in the hammer blows Joe dishes out. Spilt blood does not cleanse. It only stains.
4. As great as the security camera scene is, the best scene in You Were Never Really Here is the kitchen scene. I do not want to go into detail because it is best experienced cold, but let’s just say that the true radicalness of Ramsay’s perspective comes from the fact that she can draw out kinship from the unlikeliest of places.
5. Would that more movies took the approach towards backstory that You Were Never Really Here takes. Quick cuts and flashes, spliced into key moments. Information conveyed to audience – Joe’s seen some shit. He’s traumatised. Tired. Suicidal. The end. No need for ridiculously long flashbacks of Freudian excuses to wrap his motivations up into a nice little bow. The fact that filmmakers these days feel the need to overexplain motivations and backstories speaks ill of modern audiences. Are people now so nitpicky and spoiled that every single dribble of information needs to be spoonfed in order for them not to complain on Twitter that ‘THIS MOVIE MADE NO SENSE’?
Yes. The answer is yes.* Thank heavens Ramsay knows better and completely avoids this.
6. Jonny Greenwood scores this film. This is both a statement of fact and a metric of quality.
7. I have to go back again to the cinematography and the editing. After watching something like this, how is it possible to return to boring shot-reverse-shot and basic continuity editing? Ramsay loves her extreme close-ups, and her framing is always immaculately composed. She is a master at using frames within frames – doorways, windows, train tracks, etc. to convey the tightening claustrophobia as a result of the conspiracy surrounding Joe. As for the editing, there is a real sense here of how long to hold a shot, and the fact that the film moves at such a languid, unhurried pace and clocks in under 90 minutes is a hell of an achievement. Ramsay puts you right in Joe’s head, and makes you feel what it must be like for a PTSD-addled mind to experience the constant assault of sensation that is New York – the screech of the subway, the neon lights of advertisements, the sense of ever-present and foreboding danger on all sides.
Also, there is a single cut (aided by sound design) from underwater to above-water that both ranks as one of the darkest, sickest jokes I have ever seen in a movie and serves as a fine metaphor for the way this film blends impressionism and realism.
8. Now that Daniel Day-Lewis is ‘retired’, Joaquin Phoenix is the finest mainstream Hollywood male actor**. Nobody even comes close. No, not you, Leo. Definitely not you. Yet, he is oddly underrated, possibly (almost certainly) because he is a massive weirdo who does weird things. But look at this filmography since 2010!
I’m Still Here, The Master, Her, The Immigrant, Inherent Vice, and now this. I’m not even including Walk The Line here. These are some of the greatest performances of all time, and yet, what Phoenix gives in You Were Never Really Here might top them all (except The Master. Nothing tops his work in The Master).
The most obvious aspect to Phoenix’s performance here is the fact that he is bulked up and heavily bearded, but that is just surface level. The artistry in the performance is in the way he contrasts his dangerous physical body with the vulnerable soul within. His voice is little-boy-lost, quiet and tremulous even when he is threatening to rain death upon people. His eyes are haunted and sensitive, speaking volumes even when he has next to no dialogue. Yet he moves with leonine, feral grace, with every hammer blow and gunshot a reminder of the fact that this man is a killing machine. It is a tour-de-force of a performance, and will likely get snubbed at the Oscars because they are too busy giving out awards for Most Popular Commercial Franchise or some nonsense like that.
9. But let’s end with Ramsay, who is the cracked lens refracting the image of Phoenix’s tortured killer. To quote the late, great Roger Ebert, “it’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it is about it.” The lean, almost primordial story at the centre of You Were Never Really Here is almost incidental, the mere raw material to Lynne Ramsay’s breathtaking stylisation. This is not to say that the story is pointless, just that Ramsay, as any great visual storyteller should know, understands that things like plot events and dialogue hold no candle to the emotional and visceral effects that the building blocks of film – editing, cinematography, camera movement, etc. – can convey. It is a wondrous thing indeed, to take a story so ugly, so sparse, and (if we are being honest) so clichéd, and mould it into a work of startling beauty and originality. It may be under the radar for most, but I implore you to watch it, if only to see how a master of filmic language deploys her craft.
And also to see Joaquin Phoenix smash some fools with a hammer. I am, after all, only human.
*Worst offender – Gravity. Is it really necessary for this woman to want to not die in space because she has a dead child? Can’t she not want to die in space because, oh, let’s see, SHE DOESN’T WANT TO DIE IN SPACE? Do we need further motivation than that?
** His female counterpart is either Amy Adams or Charlize Theron.