Joaquin Phoenix is a picky actor. In director Lynne Ramsey’s own words, the man is “choosy” with his film roles. He’s achieved Leonardo DiCaprio and Daniel Day-Lewis status. He can stay relatively anonymous in his private life and only make a cinematic appearance roughly once a year. And you know whatever forces him to come to ground will more or less be absolutely fantastic (or a fantastic misfire, in the case of Inherent Vice).You Were Never Really Here tells the story of Joe – the world’s most depressed hitman. He’s an ex-marine and former FBI agent with a talent for rescuing underage girls from illegal prostitution rings. In his downtime, he lives with his elderly mum and toys with the idea of killing himself. He also looks super imposing. Phoenix has piled on muscle and the pounds up to play this absolute monster. We soon learn that he’s not to be trifled with and that he is an expert in a certain kind of brutal violence. Namely, the kind that sees him bashing in skulls with a hammer.
After returning from another successful job, Joe is tasked to find the daughter of a local senator – par for the course for someone with his skillset. But he soon finds himself in deeper than he likes.
Firstly, from that description, you probably have a very specific kind of movie in mind. One where a badass goes up against waves of goons to save the girl, with plenty of gunfights and brawls along the way. This is not that kind of movie. Sure there are fights and bullets get fired, but director Lynne Ramsey makes a very conscious decision to not show all the violence, or not to focus on it. The effect is disconcerting. You see flashes and pieces of violence. One scene sees Joe take down a handful of guards, all shown through a cycle of CCTV cameras. When something gruesome happens, it switches to the next camera or is slightly out of frame. It’s almost more shocking than the violence. After all, leaving your mind to fill in the gaps is often far worse than the truth.
As the film goes on, it gets more and more hallucinatory until the last 20 minutes, which feels like one long dream. In fact, the entire film feels like a downward spiral into a nightmare, as things spiral out of Joe’s control and bodies start dropping. This is accentuated by the eerie violence, always on the edges of the screen, ready to spill out at any time.
There’s a political conspiracy at the heart of the film that is only touched upon. For any other film, this would be a bigger element. But Ramsey isn’t concerned with these things. Her focus is on Joe and his demons. Like the violence, the deeper levels of conspiracy are only touched upon and hinted at. We’re left to imagine how deep the corruption goes. The only downside to this is that we barely get any scenes of the fantastic Alessandro Nivola – who I’ve always found to be an interesting performer.
The film also differs from Jonathan Ames’ novella in quite a few different ways. For the first half hour, it follows it surprisingly closely but changes once Joe saves Nina. The villain of the story is no longer the father and Joe actually finds Nina again at the end. I guess the book left things more open, whereas the film gives us more of an answer.
The ending itself is the most different part. Ramsey admitted that the script was unfinished when it got to filming the ending. But she said this pressure pushed her to create something different. But the ending in the film fits the movie version Joe so much better. There’s no big ending set piece and the film avoids the usual damsel in distress tropes. Joe’s a mess. He can barely save himself, never mind the girl.
Also, a shout out to the downright fantastic score by Jonny Greenwood. It matches the mood and movement of Joe as he moves through alleyways and hotel corridors. I hate Radiohead, but Greenwood has been doing some really great work in films for a while now. Most attention has been on the other big film he had a hand in this year, Phantom Thread. That is really great – but the score here is something else.
Don’t go into this film expecting Taken, because it’s something else entirely. It’s a noir-ish journey into some really dark places. The darkest being the pitch black psyche of the main character. Check out the book, it’s a bite-size thriller with some really interesting elements. But, for me, the film takes it to a completely different level.
Reviewed by Jack