“You Were Never Really Here” sticks around. Though its impact isn’t quite the blunt force trauma delivered by its hammer-wielding hero, it’s the lighter touches that make this movie something memorable.
Since its debut at Cannes almost a year ago, “You Were Never Really Here” has been exactly that: not here, making the international film festival rounds until its release in the states in early April.
During that time, praise for the film and Joaquin Phoenix’s leading role has swelled. And, for the most part, deservedly so. Although the story immediately brings to mind classic, and more recent, revenge reels, director and screenwriter Lynne Ramsay sets hers against the backdrop of timely social wrongs that do indeed deserve unmerciful righting.
Phoenix is Joe, a War on Terror veteran who’s battling his own terrors back home. The PTSD-plagued New Yorker might get a standing ovation for his service, but when not seen or celebrated by society he’s facing an internal audience of suicidal thoughts, caring for his elderly mother, and recalling his own childhood horrors of abuse.
He fills the voids by fighting, and once again serving, only this time as a shadowy savior for those enslaved in sex trafficking. Immediately, “You Were Never Really Here” exudes this tremendous sense of duality: the darkness of our world can be brightened, but even heroes themselves are often broken hues of hope. As writer, psychotherapist, and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl once noted, “[w]hat is to give light must endure burning.”
That’s evident, from the film’s first frame to its last, and everywhere in between. After saving a victim to which he’s been assigned, Joe undergoes his own self-inflicted suffering. It makes for somewhat of a mystery as to why—one you want, and will get, answered. But it’s in the cab ride after that the tone of “You Were Never Really Here” is really felt and heard, when composer Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead fame has his heavy, grungy score balanced by the driver’s serenely soulful melodic singing.
It’s strangely soothing amid the backdrop of a bright city skyline, again, lost in the black of night. It’s those juxtapositions that make “You Were Never Really Here” so lasting, especially the warmth of the flashbacks to Joe’s days in the desert to his cold commitment to one of his rescues.
As for Phoenix’s performance, it is, as others have maintained, one of his best. But really only so when judging by Leonardo DiCaprio-“Revenant” standards. DiCaprio, like Phoenix, is one of the greats, with roles far more noteworthy than his Oscar-winning one in “Revenant.” But it, like Phoenix’s in “You Were Never Really Here,” is just so realistically brutal that it’s truly worthy of the recognition.
Where “You Were Never Really Here” falls a bit short is in its ambitions, both large and small. As a simple thriller that seems to brag about its levels of violence, “You Were Never Really Here” is kind of a letdown. Although two blood-splattered scenes do steal the show, it never reaches “Brawl in Cell Block 99”-like status, with “Brawl” being a much stronger contender for warranting repeated viewings. And speaking of cab rides, in incorporating the components of political corruption—particularly those involving prostitution—Phoenix’s film evokes memories of “Taxi Driver,” but, again, not ones that are as influentially enduring.
Yet, “You Were Never Really Here” does stay with you. And rightfully so. As another famous psychologist once observed, “it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”
As Phoenix’s Joe proves, such an approach can be quite powerful, both for a film of pure force and for the evils in this world that deserve a pounding.
4.5 out of 5