By Thomas Puhr.
On paper, Lynne Ramsay’s breathtaking You Were Never Really Here (2017) sounds like one of Luc Besson’s off-the-cuff side projects, ala Taken (2008) or Colombiana (2011). After a mysterious war veteran, Joe (Joaquin Phoenix, who is only getting better with age), rescues a senator’s abducted daughter from a prostitution ring, he finds himself embroiled in a web of double crosses and political conspiracies. Eventually, a friendship of sorts develops between him and the young girl, Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov).
Fortunately, the similarities to other genre fare end there. Perhaps most radically, the writer-director focuses on the immediate aftermath of her protagonist’s violent encounters rather than reveling in gratuitous gore. Although the film has no shortage of brutal imagery (it’s hard to avoid, given that Joe’s weapon of choice is a ball-peen hammer), most of it is suggestive; a rescue sequence in a brothel, for example, is shown almost entirely through grainy surveillance footage. “Don’t look,” Joe advises Nina before he bludgeons an assailant; this line equally applies to the audience, since Ramsay cuts back to the girl’s unwavering face just before the fatal blow.
The sound design is almost lyrical in its attention to minute details: a bubbling coffeemaker, gravel crunching beneath soaked boots, and, most sublimely, the aural symmetry of a ticking wristwatch and a clicking gas pump, immerse the viewer in Joe’s paranoid, isolated world. Jonny Greenwood’s score incorporates both frenetic string work and ethereal electronic sounds, further capturing the protagonist’s unbalanced state of mind; it is easily his best soundtrack since 2007’s There Will Be Blood.
All of this technical craftsmanship would be for naught, though, if the film lacked an emotional core. Many stories of this variety are too cool for genuine pathos; Charles Bronson, for instance, was allotted merely a few scenes to “grieve” his family’s vicious assault in Death Wish (1974) before taking down an assembly line of cartoonish scumbags. Joe’s past, on the other hand, haunts him throughout the narrative. The brief, often wordless flashbacks to his abusive childhood and traumatic war experiences successfully walk the tightrope of fleshing out the character without eliminating all of his fascinating ambiguities.
Though highly skilled, Joe is no superhero. Our first glimpse of his face is through plastic, during one of many suicide attempts. He is never shown training or stylishly preparing his weapons (a montage technique that has become a lazy parody of itself), but we do see him carrying his senile mother to bed and shakily taking his medication. When he breaks into a corrupt governor’s opulent home, he is plagued by hallucinations of his past and cries in a bedroom, ripping his shirt off like a child having a tantrum.
His work as a private detective is also very human in its imperfections. As he gets information about the case, the audience is required to visually piece it together with him and come to the same logical (albeit incomplete) conclusions. Ramsay spares us the tired cliché of the villain needlessly explaining his diabolical scheme before dying; instead, we are left with the impression that Joe and Nina have just scratched the surface of a far-reaching human trafficking network.
Although Nina does not have as much screen time as her counterpart, it’s a breath of fresh air that she is more than a helpless victim waiting to be rescued. For example, a climactic confrontation is cut short when Joe discovers – spoiler alert! – that she has already killed his target. It is a moment of devastating irony: she doesn’t need his help. If anything, he is the one seeking protection, a shift emphasized by his kneeling before her. More important, though, is his need for companionship.
Much of the film’s emotional impact derives from Jonathan Ames’ excellent novella of the same name. Its lean runtime (less than 90 minutes) suggests a strict faithfulness to Ames’ story, but Ramsay makes significant changes to her source’s ending. While the former artist concludes with an adrenaline-pumping hint that Joe has plenty of hammering left to do, the latter follows him beyond his mission’s completion and begs the question: What should he do now?
Joe’s initial response to this question is one of hopelessness, like a retiree undergoing an existential crisis. A shockingly-surreal moment shows him fantasizing about shooting himself in a busy diner, amidst customers oblivious to his bloody death; in a moment of pitch-black humor, a waitress blithely drops his check on the blood-soaked table. Again, it is Nina who pulls him away from total despair. “It’s a beautiful day,” she reassures him. The image of their abandoned restaurant table is unexpectedly uplifting and adds a new dimension to the story’s enigmatic title. Ramsay is not afraid of an optimistic ending after all, but she certainly makes her characters (and her audience) earn it.
Thomas Puhr lives in Chicago, where he teaches English and language arts. A regular contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal, he has published “‘Mysterious Appearances’ in Jonathan Glazer’s Identity Trilogy: Sexy Beast, Birth and Under the Skin” in issue 15.2 of Film International.