Director: Lynne Ramsay
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Judith Roberts, Ekaterina Samsonov, Frank Pando, John Doman, Alex Manette
In a world of James Bonds, John Wicks, Lara Crofts, Lorraine Broughtons, Jason Bournes etc., the idea of an ‘action hero’ (however reluctant, in some cases) generally goes above and beyond reality. You Were Never Really Here isn’t exactly an action movie, and to call Joaquin Phoenix’s Joe an action (anti)hero might seem a bit out there, but the similarities are distinct: punch-ups, gun fights, fighting for the overall good, the military/FBI background, saving a person in distress. The realistic themes are what make it less an action film and more a dramatic realisation of PTSD, sex trafficking and corruption. It sets it apart from the mainstream and gives it a depth that ‘bigger’ films often lack. So putting aside the potential ‘action’ status of Joe, how does Lynne Ramsay’s lesser-known film fair in a world of blockbuster ‘heroes’?
Based on Jonathan Ames’ 2013 short story, You Were Never Really Here follows a PTSD-stricken, suicidal, ex-military and ex-FBI agent named Joe as he simultaneously cares for his elderly mother (Roberts) and works discreetly as a rescuer of young girls trafficked and sold for sex – a gun-for-hire of sorts. He is recruited by a New York State Senator (Manette) to rescue his daughter (Samsonov) from such a fate, and in the process Joe’s personal life becomes entwined with his unorthodox job.
Joe is not your average hitman – his conscience and kindness is often what motivates him in what he does, all the while underscored by his indifference about his own mortality. We’re often provided with flashbacks to a very troubled childhood, his father the cause of the trauma, eventually leading Joe to his self-destructive yet heroic career choices that point out his need to protect others at his own expense, thus creating the antihero audiences tend to come to adore. Through this and his tenderness towards his mother and Nina, the Senator’s daughter, we as an audience very quickly recruit ourselves onto Joe’s side. Ramsay has provided a clear separation between good and evil, allowing Joe to be the hero to others, if not to himself. His selflessness endears the audience to him and reading him is like peering into an open book – nothing about the character is hidden, and why should it be? Ramsay confesses Joe to be a very mentally-anguished character and it’s refreshing to have a protagonist that owns up to it through his suicidal thoughts and actions (putting a plastic bag over his head, which is how we’re introduced to Joe, and dangling a knife above his mouth, to name just two).
Phoenix’s performance is captivating, which perhaps goes a long way in explaining his win for Best Actor at Cannes Film Festival (with a win for Best Screenplay and a seven-minute standing ovation for the film overall). When Phoenix is onscreen you don’t want to take your eyes off him, for every small gesture, every close up, means something for his character and evermore draws us in. This is most important because Ramsay doesn’t overload her audience with expository dialogue (or dialogue in general, for that matter). We are expected to rely on what we see and to pay attention to every little bit of dialogue we’re given, which isn’t difficult. Unlike the ‘heroes’ of the previously mentioned blockbusters, Joe is a far more relatable (believe it or not) and likable character. Other performances are also superb: Judith Roberts as Joe’s mother is endearing and, in hindsight, often provides more insight into Joe’s character than his own words and actions. Newcomer Ekaterina Samsonov has a fairly muted role as Nina but her ability to convey Nina’s thoughts and feelings through her eyes alone says a lot about Samsonov’s potential as a rising star.
Surrounding the characters are these storylines of children being abused, sold and trafficked, and politicians and police officers being as corrupt as they come. None of these should come as particularly surprising – these things happen in reality, as much as we’d like to hope they don’t. Having these themes, amongst others, thrust in our faces is never a comfortable experience, and Ramsay makes sure of that, allowing cinematographer Thomas Townend to also thrust his camera into the actor’s faces, to give us close ups that manage to engage us with the juxtaposing fragility and strength of characters like Joe and Nina. Without giving too much away, there’s a scene which involves Joe shooting and fatally wounding a corrupt agent. If this were any other film where such a thing would occur, Joe would have walked away afterwards, but instead Ramsay shows a humane side to the situation, one that is both heart-warming and saddening, begging the question of why people feel the need to harm one another. It’s just one of many thought-provoking scenes that contribute to a wonderfully seamless plot.
Between Townend’s eye-catching and varied cinematography and Jonny Greenwood’s unique yet distinctive score, every scene, whether focused on a character or not, becomes significant, making the film’s 90-minute run-time dense but necessary. To have thrown in any more action for Joe, or more peeks at his mental debilities, would have been detrimental to the film’s overall meaning. Ramsay’s abilities as both a writer and a director are in complete unison and, together with her cast and crew, she has created something both entertaining and thought-provoking with a protagonist that easily matches up against any Bonds or Broughtons if only the chance were given (a shame it didn’t get a wider cinematic release). Ramsay has a relatively short filmography as a writer and/or director, with 2011’s We Need to Talk About Kevin possibly her most-known work, but she is definitely one to keep an eye on for future projects. It would be great to see an original project from her, both written and directed. With word-of-mouth spreading like wildfire for You Were Never Really Here, perhaps it could yet snowball into the wider domain, as it surely deserves to do, and ensure Ramsay can have more choice and creative control over her next project.