I must do better, sir.
An unparalleled exercise in economy, Lynne Ramsay‘s You Were Never Really Here cements her status as a cinematic master. This brutal thriller runs a deliberate yet swift 89-minutes, its central character a man of few words with violence bubbling just beneath a too large heart for the hostile world that’s forced him to retreat within. His job: going places the police can’t to save children in duress. It’s not something overtly explained, but neither are his motivations. Where dialogue might work in text (Ramsey’s script is adapted from a novel by Jonathan Ames), it pales in comparison to expertly orchestrated visual and aural landscapes invoking context in film. To see and hear Joe’s (Joaquin Phoenix) PTSD-fueled jolts of nightmare is to understand the complex duality of his soul.
It’s the screams of his mother while hiding in the closet, dry cleaning bag around his head; the twitching leg of a dying child in the sandy desert of the Middle East; and the countless suicide-friendly situations he willingly places himself to flirt with having the voices silenced even if he doesn’t necessarily want to do so with intent. He still has his mother (Judith Roberts) to watch over after all. She provides a reason to keep going while the numerous missing persons cases brokered through John McCleary (John Doman) for cash payouts sustain his desire to make good on the tragedies of his life. He’s careful about destroying evidence that could lead any potential casualties of his missions back to him, but ultimately he’s unafraid of death.
Ramsay never wastes time supplying the visual poetry of Joe’s darkened shadow. Glimpses into his psyche come as rapid flashes, each freezing him in place until his own voice asking, “What are you doing?” frees him from stasis. We only need a simple series of events to explain the dynamic of his business and severity towards privacy to know what he values and how blowback could affect his tenuous equilibrium. A laugh with his mother counters his frustration with her devolving mind. A vision of her younger self under a table is as potent as one of his father holding the same ball pein hammer that’s now his weapon of choice. Nothing is superfluous. If you don’t initially find meaning in an image, you will by the end.
Everything adds up as a means to put him off-balance. It doesn’t seem possible, but even the most carefully laid plans can implode when least expected. For Joe to see his latest assignment (retrieving the young daughter of a Senate candidate from an under-age sex parlor) as easy because it feels familiar on the surface is natural. But when you’re dealing with the convergence of crime and politics, nothing is ever as it seems. Maybe it’s a tad coincidental that certain events occur to make Joe vulnerable at the worst possible moment or maybe it’s just a product of bad luck after years of success. Either way, he’s unprepared for the fallout that follows. So too, however, are those who believe they have the upper hand against him.
Phoenix is fierce. Ramsay actually keeps a majority of the violence and gore off-screen, her quick cuts around corners and through doors masking the result since the dead and injured are meaningless when compared with the ghosts they become within Joe’s mind. It’s all about his character’s swing of the hammer, calmness when facing a yet unseen foe, and efficiency. This isn’t John Wick with blocks, kicks, and slides. There’s no getting knocked down only to spin out of a chokehold last-second. It’s approach, whack, and move along. Joe doesn’t toy with his victims; he for lack of a better term respects them. He respects the vileness of predators to kill them quickly so there can be no mistake. He respects the job of hired hands that fought with honor.
Joe is a monster of a different sort than those he must attack, but he is a monster just the same. You Were Never Really Here is the story of an anti-hero resigned to the fact that his soul cannot be saved. But that realization doesn’t mean he can’t still use his savagery for good. He knows what it is to be a preyed upon child. He knows the senseless destruction that occurs within a nihilistic world like ours. So why not give those unjustly thrust into the chaos too young an opportunity to come out with a semblance of innocence left? If he can free these children before they are completely lost to the darkness threatening to consume them, maybe they won’t become monsters themselves.
But at the end of the day he’s a soldier whose mission is to find Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov). He doesn’t kill those caught in the crossfire unless absolutely necessary and he also doesn’t make it a point to extract other victims within. If he sees another young girl being sexually abused, he’ll put his hammer into her abuser’s skull. But her father didn’t hire him. It’s an intriguing detail within the whole—this notion that he must compartmentalize his actions to not fall prey to his demons. He must simplify to retain control. So his eye stays on the prize to not unleash violence on everyone regardless of what they’ve done. We’re all guilty of something. It wouldn’t be hard to find reason to kill us all.
Here’s a character we must fear and respect simultaneously, a tightrope walk not easily won. It helps that the excess noise of sight and sound has seemingly been stripped away by Ramsay and Phoenix both. We are transported into Joe’s mind to hear the cacophony of white noise and conversations closing in that make him want to curl into a ball. The sound augments him in a way that allows us to be active participants rather than voyeurs. Ramsay’s use of form and style ensures we respond from Joe’s point of view. And I say that knowing the camera hides a lot from us. Rather than to manipulate, however, this fact forces us to focus on Phoenix first. We project his reaction onto revelations rather than our own.
The result is merciless in imagery and emotion with Phoenix as quick to turn vicious as break down in torturous sadness. But it’s also beautiful, the camera often surveying locales with a soaring artistic flair like Ramsay’s previous masterpiece We Need to Talk About Kevin. And while the film very much speaks from her aesthetic, it lets some of Ames’ voice in too. The “Bored to Death” creator’s acerbic humor may not arrive until the very end (succeeding in large part due to its glorious incongruity against what came before), but it provides a release that renders the whole even more potent. While these characters can appear robotic in their machinations, this is a veneer created to survive the horror. Seeing the soft uncertainty beneath makes them real.
 Joaquin Phoenix in Lynne Ramsay’s YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE, an Amazon Studios release. Credit: Alison Cohen Rosa | Amazon Studios
 Ekaterina Samsonov and Joaquin Phoenix in Lynne Ramsay’s YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE, an Amazon Studios release. Credit: Alison Cohen Rosa | Amazon Studios
 Judith Roberts and Joaquin Phoenix in Lynne Ramsay’s YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE, an Amazon Studios release. Credit: Alison Cohen Rosa | Amazon Studios