Joaquin Phoenix bares his soul in Lynne Ramsay’s noir-tinged New York thriller.
Lynne Ramsay makes cinema driven by images to evoke the psychological state of protagonists shaped by violence. Ratcatcher concerned a child’s will to live in the aftermath of a drowning. Morvern Callar showed a woman’s path forwards after a loved one’s suicide. We Need to Talk About Kevin depicted the dread and grief of being a murderer’s mother. You Were Never Really Here presents as Ramsay’s first genre offering, ramping up the body count and bloodshed, while maintaining her usual focus on unusual characters.
The source is Jonathan Ames’s novella about an ex-marine and ex-FBI agent who is radicalised by the brutality he has witnessed into the vigilante work of rescuing young girls from the sex trade. Ramsay’s film simmers a plot-driven narrative down to become the essence of a human soul under a particular type of strain.
Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) is initially defined by his proficiency as a hammer-wielding killing machine. “They say that you’re brutal,” says a Senator whose daughter, Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov) has been taken to be an underage sex slave in a Manhattan brothel. “I can be,” replies Joe, whose major pastime is putting a plastic bag over his head and fantasising about dying.
He is one of God’s lonely men. Cinematic relatives include Dirty Harry and Travis Bickle. Like the latter, he patrols a nighttime New York populated by those likely to cause harm. Phoenix’s piercing eyes and cauliflower nose identify the actor within a body otherwise engulfed by his role. Straggly hair is pulled into a ponytail, and his face is disguised beneath a hobo beard. Joe is powerfully built, with the muscly paunch of a prizefighter running to flab. Welts streak his flesh speaking of the violence he comes from, professionally and closer to home.
The first hour presents a challenge. It is a noir thriller with few thrills, and a character study with limited character. Jonny Greenwood’s darkly devastating score accompanies Joe as he does the rounds of his world, lumbering like a beast of burden to check in with associates, who he keeps at arm’s length, and to look after his elderly mother (Judith Roberts), whose presence abets a few oases of dark-humoured bonhomie.
A tonal and thematic deepening takes place when, suddenly, for the first time, we are outdoors amid nature. A straightforward depiction of sunlight glistening through trees is shockingly powerful, because it represents the harmony denied to our antihero. By this point in the narrative, the shaping events of his life have been filled in through flashbacks and his haunted angst expressed through fantasies.
Nina, the girl he rescues, comes to represent a shimmering innocence, but the chasm between this golden-haired angel girl and Joe is desperately sad. Ramsay has made a film that finds the humanity of a killer, with a title that speaks to the wistful longing of those whose circumstances never really gave them a shot at a different life.
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