You Were Never Really Here opens Fri., April 27, at the Roxy.
Some people are so tortured by their past and listless about their future that they don’t care if they live or die. These people are fearless, and thus, they are useful tools for the dispassion of hired violence. The protagonist in writer and director Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here is that kind of man. Joaquin Phoenix stars as Joe, a former combat veteran and FBI agent who now works as a hired gun for powerful, mysterious people. Soft spoken, lumbering and heavily bearded, Joe crushes skulls in the daytime, then returns to his childhood home in New York City, where he lives with his elderly mother.
I first saw You Were Never Really Here in January at Sundance, a few months after its premiere at Cannes, where it won Best Screenplay and Best Actor for Phoenix. The screening began with a lofty speech from festival directors, followed by a brief introduction of Ramsay and Jonathan Ames, who authored the book the film is based on; you may remember Ames as the inspiration for HBO’s Bored to Death. And then, get this: The festival director bullied a super reluctant Joaquin Phoenix onto the stage, still clad in the same full beard and stringy hair. (Is it for another role or is this just his preferred look?) He waved to the crowd, sat back down peevishly and did not return at the end of the picture for the obligatory Q&A to follow. Anyway, if ever you were curious what goes on at these swanky, mysterious film festivals, there’s a tiny, anticlimactic taste.
Hired-gun pictures tend to rely on familiar scaffolding to hang their story on, and this film is no different. We follow Joe at the tail end of his last job with unsettling loose ends — someone may have said something he shouldn’t have and might probably get killed, but file that away for later. Most pressingly, an important state senator’s tween daughter has been kidnapped for sex trafficking, and Joe is tasked with apprehending the girl and probably violently hurting those responsible. The story features lots of moving parts, competing agendas and some truly elegant, bone-chilling and brief explosions of violence. We have crooked police officers, collateral damage and underground brothels catering to wealthy monsters. All of this serves as a muted background to what Ramsay wants us to see: a devastating character study of a man riddled with PTSD and his withering struggle for absolution. Consider an early scene where Joe comes home to his mother as she watches Psycho on the television. You might not guess that this doting son is the same man who hours earlier beat men to a pulp with a hardware store hammer. The contradictions exist to bug us, and they should, because all of us are crawling with them.
Joe rescues the kidnapped daughter, Nina (played by Ekaterina Samsonov with a spooky silence that implies a sinister near-past), and from there, they enter a tender and binding contract that motivates Joe to keep living — at least until the sordid work is complete.
You Were Never Here has an upsetting, dreamlike quality that lulls you through its 129 minutes and holds you on the edge of a precipice that never fully delivers. It’s a good picture (bolstered primarily by style and cutting performances) that ultimately disappointed me in its failure to be great. As is often the case, I recommend you let the story wash over you without an agenda. And when you’re done with that, go see every other film by Ramsay to get a taste of what you’re missing.