You Were Never Really Here

 Joaquin Phoenix as Joe

Joaquin Phoenix as Joe

Lynne Ramsay takes her time over her films.  Seven years have passed since the unsettling We Need To Talk About Kevin.  The subject matter for Ramsay’s latest film, You Were Never Really Here, is no less unrelenting and takes us to the dark heart of New York.  Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) has a very specific role in this city, he recovers young girls who have been trafficked. But his latest job hasn’t gone to plan.

Joe returns from a job in Cincinnati and is told by his booker, John (John Doman), that another job has come up.  A New York Senator’s troubled daughter has gone missing. Joe takes the job and is told by the senator that there is a brownstone where powerful men do terrible things to children.  This is where he believes his daughter Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov) has been taken. Joe stakes the place out and, in an incredible set piece shown through CCTV footage, Joe rescues Nina.  After this, everything goes wrong.

Basically, that is the crux of the story and Nina is the macguffin.  But what makes You Were Never Really Here stand out is the colour around that central rescue premise.  Joe is clearly a very capable man. In flashback we see he has been a soldier and a cop. But, in the now, he has a belly, he’s unkempt and lives at home with his aged mother, played beautifully by Judith Roberts.  Joe suffers from PTSD not only from his his time in uniform, but from a brutal childhood. We see this backstory in very fleeting, shocking imagery. Ramsay is so nuanced in showing us what has disturbed her characters.  Her cinematographer Tom Townsend captures these fleeting moments with a grace that heightens each shot.  By showing us how they have became whom they have, we feel closer to them, despite the things we see them capable of.

From this we know Joe is a broken man.  He is capable of the most incredible violence to achieve his aims.  But, through Ramsay’s direction and Phoenix’s incredible performance, we have something more.  The posters for this film will hail it as a “Taxi Driver for this generation” and I hope whomever wrote that line is happy to see their name on a poster.  That is not the film I saw, either of the times I’ve watched it.  Phoenix’s Joe is not Travis Bickle.  Where De Niro’s Bickle fixated on Iris and tries to "save" her for himself, he clearly is unwell (a sociopath and possible schizophrenic) and his tendency towards violence seems to be his greater driver.  Bickle’s sudden glace at the end of the film alludes to that.  Joe on the other hand was the boy who could not save his mother or himself and this had lead him to try save others.  There is an empathy in Joe that Bickle just doesn’t have and this is what makes Phoenix's performance so compelling.  Either in the service or as a cop, despite his very best efforts, Joe cannot save them all.

You Were Never Really Here is a brutal, difficult film that has a very genuine heart.  While not an easy watch, Ramsay and Phoenix have crafted such a remarkable journey that you cannot look away, even when you really want too.  The empathy Joe shows, coupled with the mission he undertakes, makes for a complex, compelling and incredibly impressive film.

You Were Never Really Here is out now in the UK and is rated, remarkably, 15.