Considering the Trumpian age in which we live, it’s difficult to make the case that we need another film that revolves around the wild exploits of an angry, violent, middle-aged white man. Yet that is just what Lynne Ramsay’s incredibly cynical film, You Were Never Really Here, serves up, trading in the brutal, reactionary fantasies of its central protagonist Joe (played by an enormously bearded and burly Joaquin Phoenix). The silver lining here is that, under Ramsay’s stylish direction, You Were Never Really Here is also a shattering portrait of one’s man’s depression and post-traumatic stress. The film’s hideous violence, asinine plot and unsatisfying ending are rendered secondary to the poignant and powerful vulnerability of Phoenix’s performance and Ramsay’s directorial efforts, which keep the proceedings mostly compelling throughout.
In You Were Never Really Here, Phoenix’s Joe – a war veteran – is a New York-based contract killer for hire. Nothing about this is treated romantically. For instance, Joe dresses like a hobo-version of Mark Zuckerburg. He also lives with his wizened mother – who may or may not be mentally disintegrating. And he’s paid not with elegant briefcases containing crisp Benjamins but by dirty envelopes of cash stuffed into the ceiling tiles of a convenience store.
Joe is getting by living this life – albeit barely – shuffling about between hits, clearly struggling with PTSD and crippling depression, and dealing with a mother that he both loves is exasperated by. Circumstances begin to go awry, however, when he receives a new assignment from his partner John McCleary (played by the always welcome John Doman). McCleary has set up a job for Joe to retrieve Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), the wayward daughter of a state senator, from the vile clutches of child sex traffickers. Joe takes the job but very quickly discovers that there is much more to Nina’s kidnapping than meets the proverbial eye.
Watching You Were Never Really Here is a powerful, visceral experience. The craft Ramsay displays throughout the film is reason alone to see it, with the cinematography and editing working beautifully together to convey the subjective nature of Joe’s isolation, post-traumatic stress and dangerously addled mind. The film’s visuals don’t ever reach the absorbing level of dystopian madness seen in something like Scorsese’s 70’s masterpiece Taxi Driver, but Ramsay and co. do manage the Herculean feat of turning the gentrified wonderland of present day New York City into a place of real malice, decay and fear.
For as impressive as these attributes are, however, probably the most singularly powerful aesthetic of You Were Never Really Here is its sound. Ramsay, working together with her technicians, creates an auditory vision of New York so hellish and all-consuming that it sets your nerves ablaze. Jonny Greenwood’s exceptional score adds to its impact. The score is filled with screaming strings and recalls Bernard Herrmann’s work in Psycho and Micachu’s score for 2013’s Under the Skin; it helps create a deeply unsettling almost grating experience.
But alas, no film is perfect, and if the aesthetics of You Were Never Really Here act as a sort of delicious cinematic meal, the film’s actual storyline resembles the indigestion that often accompanies a feast. It’s unpleasant, mindless and spastic, and it can only conclude with an ignominious fart.
The problems with You Were Never Really Here‘s scripting extend both to the film’s characterizations and to the mechanizations of its plot. Owing an obvious debt to Taxi Driver, Ramsay’s film harnesses the earlier movie’s paranoia and rage regarding political impotence in the face of urban depravity and puts it on steroids. In her film’s world, politicians don’t just turn a blind eye to malfeasance and illicit, predatory behavior; they are the ones directly behind it all, commandeering city cops, federal agents and other forces to destroy Joe and maintain their self-serving status quo of exploitation and abuse. While such a “yarn” might feel plausible in a hyper-stylized world like Frank Miller’s Sin City, it doesn’t really work in the semi-realistic You Were Never Really Here. To the film’s credit, there are certain scenes that do take on a dreamlike quality. But major chunks of the story do feel as though they are meant to be interpreted as fairly realistic, leaving the more preposterous aspects of the plot feeling out of whack.
But even with these tonal issues, You Were Never Really Here always has an ace in the hole – and that is Joaquin Phoenix’s incredible performance in the leading role. After an acting run that includes the unhinged Commodus in Gladiator, the tormented Johnny Cash in Walk the Line and the manic Freddie Quell from The Master, it’s safe to say that there is nobody in the business who can so powerfully play different variations on gloom and psychic suffering. His performance as Joe in You Were Never Really Here represents another triumph for the actor, the latest in a long run of diverse, commanding performances that he has given since coming back from his woefully misguided mockumentary project: I’m Still Here.
The layered nature of Phoenix’s work is supplemented by Ramsay’s fascinating directorial choices, which work against expected norms and often to thrilling effect. In and around the bloodletting, the brooding and the all around misery, Ramsay adds scenes of disarming (sometimes literally) vulnerability that are both bizarre and strangely touching. And when these flourishes are paired with Phoenix deeply-felt work, they communicate something critically important about the film’s complex antihero: his humanity.
It is regrettable that the film fails to carry this communicative nature through to the end, to ultimately make some sort of statement or conclude Joe’s character arc in a way that feels satisfying or consequential. Like many smaller art films, You Were Never Really Here ends with an indecisive, ambiguous, uncommunicative, “Hmm, let’s just cut to black,” tone that feels like a cop out. It relegates the film, inhibiting it from being a worthy successor to films like Taxi Driver and channeling something (anything?) about the wretched times in which we live. In the end, what Ramsay’s film conveys is little more a primal scream, a desire to get away, to just get out. And while this feels reflective enough of the waking nightmare that is the Trumpian age, it still leaves you wanting more.