In Lynne Ramsey’s Morvern Callar (2002), the eponymous teen girl finds herself seeking more from her mundane life after tragedy strikes, the kind that leaves her in a shell-shocked dream-state, unable to properly comprehend a potent mix of grief and opportunity. Her boyfriend has killed himself, and Morvern cashes in on a novel he has written while his corpse remains in a pool of blood on their apartment floor. Fascination is derived from Morvern’s unpredictable responses; how is one supposed to react when presented with such a stark combination of devastating loss and the chance for a new life?
2011’s We Need to Talk About Kevin again places its female protagonist within a lucid nightmare; Tilda Swinton’s Eva experiences every mother’s worst fear has developed a disconnection, even resentment, towards her newborn son, who she believes to be a dangerous psychopath. Conflicted between her responsibility as a parent and her own mental wellbeing, Eva’s tale is one of guilt towards almost everyone around her, feeling as though she has made selfish and misjudged choices that have led to extreme suffering among a great number of people.
Both terrifying as human experiences, these films delve deep into circumstances from which there is no morally righteous direction for our characters to take, or at least no easy one. Between these two women, we feel as though real psychological insight is given, and that both characters, for better or worse, evolve and develop as we watch them. Indescribably nauseating events unfold and the minds of our characters unravel before us, fascinating while distinctly honest and human at the same time.
Enter Ramsey’s new film, a savage and unsparing hitman thriller starring a physically towering Joaquin Phoenix as Joe, an unhinged war-veteran who is hired to rescue under-aged girls from repulsive inner-city brothels and pedophile rings while inflicting great pain upon the perpetrators. With deep scars scattered across his brawny frame and bags under his vacant eyes that suggest past trauma and sleep deprivation, Joe is a deeply troubled individual with little regard for his own life, repeatedly toying with self-harm and suicidal thought. This state of being providing Joe with the necessary recklessness required for his profession, able to dispose of multiple trained guards armed only with a ball-peen hammer and bouts of adrenaline. Each strike of Joe’s weapon of choice is presented without cinematic sugarcoating; the violent sequences are all swift, grisly, and naturalistic unlike most of the film’s genre contemporaries.
You Were Never Really Here also deviates from conventions of the thriller genre through the character of Joe, who ousts the preconceived notion of the male action hero by laying bare a sensitive side while retaining the stereotypically hyper-masculine brutishness. By night, we watch him bashing in skulls and sulking around back alleys, before returning home and tending to his elderly mother. It is in these scenes that we find a very different character than his appearance may suggest. With playful wit and fervent compassion, Joe seems for the most part… normal. He leaves behind the grit and unpleasantry that he tends to on the streets, and becomes a caring and emotionally receptive son.
Phoenix’s character progression lacks the same layered depth that fuelled Ramsey’s other films making You Were Never Really Here feel like an incomplete character portrait
These two sides to Joe’s morally questionable personality help to construct a vicious and frightening, while endearing and somewhat righteous antihero and Phoenix’s physical heft makes the character’s pile-driving combat skills completely believable. But despite helming this seemingly complex and multi-faceted character with commendable commitment, and despite his Best Actor win for the performance at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, Phoenix is unfortunately rather one-note throughout, only occasionally pausing his constant bleary-eyed expression for brief moments of hysteric breakdown or compassionate connection. In Ramsey’s two previous films, Samantha Morton and Tilda Swinton give exceedingly layered performances as characters sleepwalking through dread-fueled trances, struggling to come to terms with their new terms of existence following dramatically life-altering events. Both performances display a vast scope of emotional expression, but Joe’s burden is constant and for the most part unchanging, refusing Phoenix the opportunity to express much range or any sort of progression or development.
It is difficult not to draw comparisons to Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) with such similar central figures and storylines, and by comparing Joe with Robert De Niro’s similarly unhinged and violent night-dweller Travis Bickle, it perhaps gives some insight into why Joe isn’t quite as compelling as he should be. In Taxi Driver, Travis isn’t so explicitly deranged, and we slowly watch Travis descend deeper and deeper into a hole of deluded cynicism and paranoia. Joe, on the other hand, doesn’t experience this downward spiral or any sort of change in character; we know pretty much all we need to know about him after the film’s first third. Joe also lacks Travis’s unpredictability, the livewire, anything-could-happen quality that’s required for this kind of unstable character, and as a result, his following actions and responses are disappointingly unsurprising aside for a few moments of inconsequential frenzy.
Ramsey’s clear cinematic vision comes to life in You Were Never Really Here, aided by Phoenix’s performance, stellar cinematography and a standout score from Jonny Greenwood
Despite these setbacks, the film is at least ambitious if not completely successful, and there is much to be admired. You Were Never Really Here is distinctly a Lynne Ramsey film; it is another focused character study on a deeply troubled individual, it is indented with droll humor and a touching sensitivity, and once again has blood-splattered tragedy at its pulsating core. Ramsey’s clear cinematic vision is as tactful and provocative as ever, utilizing Phoenix’s brooding performance, DP Tom Townend’s grim yet colorful cinematography, and Jonny Greenwood’s vigorous and experimental score (coming just months after his musical contributions to Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread – easily my favorite film and score of 2017) to form a nervous energy and an air of doom which aligns with Joe’s anguished internal struggle and futile existence. Irregular drum machines, crunching synths, and swelling, off-kilter strings accompany Joe’s traversal of a poisoned NYC in which unspeakable evil hides in the shadows of pedestrian life.
There’s no question that this movie is the result of an important and singular voice in contemporary cinema, and is the mark of an accomplished visual storyteller, but somewhere along the line, this project fails to reach its potential and move beyond being a somewhat stale and unexpressive portrait of a tortured soul. The film has plenty to say about corruption in American politics and the effects that violence can have on its victims, but these explorations are shallow and play second fiddle to Joe’s plight, pandering to his own insubstantial character arc. Certain elements of Ramsey’s filmmaking thrive under the depraved nature of the film’s narrative, and certain visionary images will leave an impression on the memory, but despite all the bravado, You Were Never Really Here is a shallower character study than its bloody, boisterous exterior would suggest.