Violence is cynical in Lynn Ramsey’s down and dirty arthouse thriller You Were Never Really Here. A rough and tumble look at a life surrounded and dictated by violence, Ramsey’s long-awaited follow-up to 2011’s We Need to Talk About Kevin stars Joaquin Phoenix as a mumbling fixer. Armed with a hammer and crippling PDST, Phoenix’s squirrelly and traumatized antihero is a hired gun; a vigilante who specializes in liberating young women from sex trafficking.
Bloody and mean, Ramsey’s film is a thought-provoking and economic B-movie that deals in sexual exploitation, scummy politics and the salty sweet flavor of vengeance. A mash of 70s exploitation film and conspiratorial grindhouse thrillers, You Were Never Really Here draws influence from the likes of Taxi Driver and Last House on the Left, updating the style and avant-garde artistry while preserving the lean-mean economy of its packaging.
Rarely wasting a word, breathe, or beat, You Were Never Really Here champions minimalism and offscreen action. In that capacity, the film is the anti-Hostel. Ramsey displays little interest in physical torture though her characters stew in mental, emotional anguish. She often explores the aftermath of the plot’s barbery, offering up the aftermath of a violent encounter rather than thrusting us into its furious epicenter. We see bodies battered but not their battering. A gun is held to characters’ heads and fired only when the scene changes.
Ramsey manages truly beautiful shots – artfully decorated hallways framed with an artist’s eye, a single beam of light cutting salvation down through water, an otherwise bland office overflowing with floral bouquets – to accompany the gnarly brutishness boiling at the center of the film. The film’s aesthetic is hallucinatory and shadowed, a gnash of neon at night that evokes a sleepy waking dream. Adding to the nightmarish state, she populates the movie with musical cognitive dissonance in the form of upbeat melodies – Rosie and the Originals “Angel Baby” for one – that offsets the discombobulating sonic miasma courtesy of Jonny Greenwood’s (Radiohead) musical compositions. The juxtaposition of Ramey’s tasteful tableaus and the film’s savage war drum posturing the moral complexity that swirls throughout.
Phoenix’s Joe is the conduit of that conundrum, a broken, disturbed man who while unflinching in his brutality manages to commiserate with his fellow man. A scene wherein he lies with a man he’s just shot in the gut, holding his hand and singing to him as he fades to black, represents how thematically loaded Ramsey’s film is. The gesture is at once deeply unsettling and empathetic. A twisted soul sullenly recognizing and trying to quiet pain in another. Joe’s is vigilantism as commiseration.
DeNiro went wiry and mohawked to play Travis Bickle and Phoenix heads in the polar opposite direction. Beefed up and bearded, a grey scraggle of hair tied loosely behind his neck, Phoenix is a swollen vessel of sins – both of his and his transgressors. He’s a fat and angry judicator, ripe with an executioner’s ax and bulging eyes. Phoenix delivers crabby gold as the emotionally stunted Joe, plating up a bruising portrait of an aged casualty of his upbringing.
When Joe takes a job emancipating the daughter (Ekaterina Samsonov) of an up-and-coming politician he finds himself for the first time in over his head, fallout showering down upon his sheltered, reclusive life and the few people who occupy it. What follows is gloomy and unforgiving. Tearful and loaded with pain, grief, and blood. Ramsey explores the ripple of childhood trauma with unrelenting bleakness, detailing a dark trajectory of a shattered boy’s transition into hardened man.
While another director may revel and luxuriate in the violence of it all, Ramsey understands that those unfazed by violence take no pleasure in its enacting. And Joe, for a man who crushes skulls with a hammer professionally, finds no glory in those home-run swings. No gleeful solace in his dutiful bloodletting. He is no more than a grown version of the very children he intends to save, mimicking the gestures of an abusive parent to save the next generation of would-be victims.
CONCLUSION: Lynn Ramsey’s disturbing grindhouse thriller takes active interest in cycles of violence and the physical and emotional scars of trauma, showcasing a battering ram performance from Joaquin Phoenix and the director’s sublime eye for beauty amidst chaos.