Lynne Ramsay’s latest removes all the artifice from the thriller genre, and leaves only the suspense and trauma.
As an audience, we’ve grown accustomed to heroes who are accustomed to violence. The human beings in our movies frequently fall into life-or-death situations, and frequently have to kill other human beings to get out of them, but then it’s off to their next adventure. No big deal. As if that type of experience wouldn’t leave a scar on even the toughest of hides.
You Were Never Really Here is a film about those scars. It strips away all the unflappable “cool” that we frequently take for granted and leaves its characters vulnerable, wounded, and possibly dying from the emotional strain of living a brutal life. It’s not just a great thriller, it’s a great film about psychological collapse, with a protagonist who is, in every scene, just one more troubling thought away from giving up entirely and ending his own life.
Joaquin Phoenix stars as Joe, who we meet in the film’s first moments as he’s cleaning up a crime scene, washing away blood and disposing of evidence. It doesn’t take incredibly long to find out he isn’t the kidnapper and murderer, but is instead a person who stops kidnappers and murderers, but either way he’s living a life on the fringe, and it’s a life of constant violence.
Joe cares for his elderly mother, and works as an independent contractor, finding missing girls and rescuing them for their parents. We see in fleeting glimpses that Joe himself had a horrific childhood, and that his line of work forces him to confront more horrors on a constant basis. He’s withdrawn, and has few acquaintances. He wears a woolly beard like a pioneer recluse. His body is a mass of muscle, but with no thought given to whether or not that protective tissue makes him look attractive. His whole vibe says: “Do not touch.”
Joe’s latest assignment sends him searching for the missing daughter of a politician, and he soon finds her in a monstrous world of unthinkable exploitation. But just when it seems as though everything might be going according to plan, and that goodness might prevail over despair, a wicked turn of events sends Joe barreling further and further into danger, and closer to the brink of embracing his own death, if only because – as director Lynne Ramsay films it – his world is full of never-ending punishment and terrors.
You Were Never Really Here has all the earmarks of a pulpy thriller. It has conspiracies and action and revenge and surprises. But the film has no patience for entertainment value, and instead focuses entirely on the emotional fallout of a life, and lives, tainted by violence. You don’t need many plot points or action sequences if the ones you’ve got explode on impact for maximum effect.
Lynne Ramsay’s film is barely 90 minutes long but it’ll take a lot longer than that to recover. Joaquin Phoenix gives one of his best performances, and finds a delicate balance between fragility and rage. For two-thirds of the film it looks like he’s just trying to hold it together, and barely succeeding. The rest is divided between caveman outbursts and almost tranquil attempts to kill himself, as though it would be preferable, as if no one would notice if he was gone.
If it sounds like You Were Never Really Here is a depressing film, you’re right, but Lynne Ramsay never seems to be wallowing. Her film moves with force towards a smart conclusion, as though she has somehow weaponized negativity, and aimed it back against itself. Her whole movie may be about suicidal thoughts, and it seems to be seriously thinking about ending itself prematurely in every other scene, but it has a reason to go on. And it makes a convincing argument for the rest of us too.