Disturbing as he is terrifying, a powerhouse Joaquin Phoenix (Walk the Line) performance dominates in the gritty and impactful You Were Never Really Here, adapted from Jonathan Ames’ book of the same name, directed by Lynne Ramsay (We Need to Talk About Kevin).
Shrouded in mystery, the face of Joaquin Phoenix’s Joe remains anonymous for a short while at first. The mystery is continued early on in only showing aspects of Joe’s work after the main body of his objectives have taken place.
A veteran and former FBI agent traumatised by flashbacks of war, Joe’s current objectives are to find and return missing children. Unofficial and obviously suspicious, Joe’s work entails plenty of violence – though when violence is present, more or less always self-instigated, his physicality is almost that of the Terminator or a horror franchise villain.
For his latest objective, however, the client is of a high-profile – New York’s Senator Albert Votto (Shame’s Alex Manette).
Senator Votto: “McCleary said you were brutal.”
Joe: “…I can be.”
Senator Votto: “I want you to hurt them.”
Senator Votto’s 13-year-old daughter, Nina (Wonderstruck’s Ekaterina Samsonov), runs away after the passing of her mother, however, she ends up in child prostitution. Residing within a seedy block, Joe must infiltrate the establishment, and walk out with Nina by any means necessary. Though when people in power are getting involved with off-the-books services, should audiences and Joe alike suspect things to run smoothly as any other?
On the lighter side, outside of work, Joe has a pleasant relationship with his ageing mother, credited as Joe’s Mother (OITNB’s Judith Roberts). In his mother’s home, Joe is present with more talking, often comedic, and referencing Psycho, but his physical demeanour is not there. Though not many will pick this up, there is a slight parallel with the John Rambo character in First Blood – another PTSD-suffering veteran – in that they are both talkative and lighter with trusted people early on in their respective films, but then quiet and deadly throughout the progression of their respective films.
Many an actor suffers from the misfortune of being the same guy in every film – this is not applicable to Joaquin Phoenix. It is almost impossible to believe that this is the same actor who starred in Her. Then again, this has happened for the last 20 years of Joaquin Phoenix’s career, right? From 8mm to Gladiator, Signs to Walk the Line, and now Her to You Were Never Really Here, Joaquin Phoenix continues to display his first-class versatility.
The displays of traditional acting and physical acting by Joaquin Phoenix in You Were Never Really Here are both phenomenal, and both perfectly captured by Lynne Ramsay. Despite a violent role, Lynne Ramsay is successful in being able to display Phoenix’s physicality without over doing it or revealing all. It can be scarily powerful to have audiences know what has happened, but not explicitly show them.
In a world dominated by the CGI-ridden, franchise spectacle, it is a refreshing feeling to observe a piece of pure cinema. From beautiful centralised shots of Joaquin Phoenix to the occasional, truly haunting image, You Were Never Really Here is a sometimes difficult watch. Positively though, You Were Never Really Here is one of those films to possess sequences where everything is right – the acting, the shot, and the score to set the mood and tension of a scene.
Though its resemblances to Taxi Driver are admirable, they could also be the downfall of You Were Never Really Here. When parallels between films are established, fandoms can’t help but compare. Please stop, as it is insulting to the respective productions of art. Imagine this:
“Hey, fancy watching You Were Never Really Here?”
“Nah, it’s just a sh*t Taxi Driver.”
Imagine having the audacity to compare. Often, when a new film is instantly compared to and paralleled with a classic of either Classical Hollywood or New Hollywood, there is a subsequent establishment of watching the new film only to compare to the old, rather than watching the new film in its own right. Though tremendous, Interstellar was another to suffer from toxic comparisons – 2001: A Space Odyssey was the classic in comparison.
The only disappointment with the Blu-Ray and DVD of You Were Never Really Here is the lack of bonus content, as there is only a one-minute video of “from book to film”-esque material. However, the lack of bonus content does actually fit in line with You Were Never Really Here’s way of not letting its viewer know too much.
Ultimately, the home release of You Were Never Really Here should feature in every film fan’s collection of 2017/2018 films. When one has had the pleasure of experiencing You Were Never Really Here, one has to wonder what is next for both Joaquin Phoenix and Lynne Ramsay. Will Joaquin finally win an Oscar? Will Lynne Ramsay lead the way of female directors?
You Were Never Really Here is available on Digital Download, DVD, Blu-ray and VOD from today, 2nd July 2018