Jonathan Ames’ novella, You Were Never ReallyHere is a gritty, stripped down portrait of a man wounded in nearly every way imaginable. At a hair over 90 pages, it’s spare and efficient. It evokes feel and tone and mood and emotion, hinting at a brutal history for its protagonist, simply named Joe, rather than offering overt explanation and detailed backstory. It’s sparse, but leaves a distinct lingering impression. And in the hands of director Lynne Ramsey (We Need to Talk about Kevin), it makes for a similarly tight, impactful film. Bleak and grim, it’s also a human, tender story about baptism, rebirth, and being repurposed.
Joaquin Phoenix plays Joe. His former life as a soldier, an FBI agent, and an abuse survivor has left his body a ruin of scars, his mind a maze of trauma. A raw, exposed nerve of a man—everything hurts and causes pain—he lives a simple life in New York with his aged, ailing mother. He also works as a hired gun freeing young girls ensnared by sex traffickers, and has a well-earned reputation for violence—his tool of choice is a ball peen hammer.
On a mechanical level, You Were Never Really Here is about Joe’s latest job, rescuing Nina Votto (Ekaterina Samsonov), the kidnapped daughter of a prominent politician. Things take a turn, there’s betrayal, psychological unravelling, political intrigue, and a touch of revenge. But it’s Joe’s story, and Phoenix slips with an uncomfortable ease into the skin of this broken, damaged man.
When Joe closes his eyes, he sees wicked flashes—the abuse he and his mother suffered in his childhood, cruelty during his time in combat, finding a shipping container full of dead girls on the job with the FBI. That’s how Ramsey shows us Joe’s history, doling out his past in fleeting glimpses. These images come and go in a blink, and more than they tell us about Joe, they create a jarring, visceral feel. But for the briefest second, we experience the chaotic storm that rages below his almost tranquil exterior. And it’s these down moments that exist between flurries of violence that solidify Phoenix’s performance as one of his best.
You Were Never Really Here leaves much unsaid. Ramsey, who also adapted the screenplay, trusts the audience to pick up the subtext, to see what exists in the spaces between. Phoenix barely utters a syllable, but his uncanny physicality—in both the hammer-swinging moments and instants of calm—and his restrained emoting communicate more clearly than any words.
For as ferocious as the story is, it’s rarely gratuitous. Ramsey and cinematographer Thomas Townend (Attack the Block) are calculating and methodical in what they show, mirroring Joe’s mental state. On the job, there’s a detached ruthlessness. Much of the actual violence takes place off screen, around corners. There’s a level of distance and remove. But when this case gets under his skin, it becomes close, intimate, personal. Even the way they film the action shows the new meaning, the new connection, that’s been absent.
Even in otherwise mundane scenes, Townend’s camera creates a visually evocative tableau. On a platform waiting for a train, poking his head out of a car window in the rain, or suffocating himself with a plastic bag in a closet. They appear simple at first glance, but reveal elusive depth as the layers peel back.
Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood (Phantom Thread), who worked with Ramsey on Kevin, provides the score, his best movie work to date. From ‘70s funk notes to driving ‘80s synth, delicate strings to discordant noise, changing direction on a dime to suit the narrative needs. His compositions prove vital to the surrounding narrative.
Every element of You Were Never Really Here weaves together to enhance and elevate every other. It’s a cumulative collection, mosaic tiles that combine to paint a picture of the weight and cost of a life of accumulated violence. It’s not an easy movie to watch, but it’s a remarkable achievement, and let’s hope it doesn’t take Lynne Ramsey another seven years to make her next movie. [Grade: A]