Brooding, PTSD-Fueled Brutality in ‘You Were Never Really Here’

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(2018—Director: Lynne Ramsay)

— by Renard N. Bansale

High ★★★★
(out of 5 stars) 

“McCleary said you were brutal.” (beat) “I can be.” — Sen. Albert Votto (Alex Manette) and Joe (Joaquin Phoenix)

Potential spoilers below

In the opening for my review for The Beguiled last summer, I described writer-director Sofia Coppola as one of modern cinema’s formidable female voices. Coppola’s film premiered and won the Best Director award at the 70th Cannes Film Festival last May. At that same closing ceremony, in the Best Screenplay (tied with The Killing of a Sacred Deer) and Best Actor categories, the latest work of another formidable female voice also triumphed—You Were Never Really Here, from Scottish writer-director Lynne Ramsay. While the disturbing subject matter as well as a few visually-restrained instances of traumatizing violence are not for sensitive viewers, Ms. Ramsay’s thriller boasts overbearing sound design, an unorthodox electronic score by Jonny Greenwood, and—most of all—Joaquin Phoenix’s year-defining star performance. All these stretch the brisk and brutal 97 pages of the 2013 novella by Jonathan Ames into a meditative and mesmerizing character study.

Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) may look like the thinking assassin’s Jack Black, but beneath that tubby build and bushy facial hair lurks an indignant brute. Suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder after stints in the armed forces and the FBI, Joe endures the weight in two ways: First, he cares for his elderly mother (Judith Roberts), and second, he guarantees anxious and affluent parents the rescue of their kidnapped children, typically victims of perverse human trafficking, all while promising brutal consequences towards those responsible. Joe’s latest assignment involves Senator Albert Votto (Alex Manette), who has received an anonymous text containing the address to the expensive bordello that holds his daughter Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov) captive. Little does Joe know that rescuing Nina Votto will uncover a conspiracy that will put him, Nina, and everyone they both know in grave danger.

Many have compared Ramsay’s thriller to Taxi Driver, the 1976 Martin Scorsese classic starring Robert De Niro, not only because of the similar story element of rescuing a young woman from a life of prostitution, but in particular because of the fascinating and crucial protagonist at its center. Simply put, Joaquin Phoenix’s star turn as Joe raises the bar for male lead performances in 2018 so far. Joe’s absent inner monologue (a la De Niro’s Travis Bickle), weighed-down coolness, and contained bursts of violence compare less with Taxi Driver’s antihero and more with Ryan Gosling’s Driver from 2011’s Drive. Phoenix’s Joe may have a loving mother to care for at home and he may practice a more lucrative trade compared to the other two fictional men, but Phoenix still succeeds in conveying the sense that he has been letting life, or at least a more meaningful purpose, pass him by.

Another trait that holds Phoenix’s Joe back is his sharp post-traumatic stress disorder. Here, Lynne Ramsay’s idiosyncratic vision enters. Ms. Ramsay’s four movies (counting this one) have consisted of small-scale tales, intricate with details both visual and audial. In adapting Jonathan Ames’ novella, she stresses the latter for identifying Joe’s PTSD, working with her sound team of Drew Kunin, Andrew Stirk, and Paul Davies to heighten Joe’s sustained plight even before the film’s first shot. (Davies has worked with Ramsay since her 1997 feature debut Ratcatcher.) The resulting loudness mirrors Joe’s condition as well as his deeper perception and sensitivity, while the more peaceful and quiet scenes represent fulfilment and resolution for Joe.

Seven years since 2011’s We Need to Talk About Kevin, Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood returns to collaborate with Ms. Ramsay for the second time. Greenwood’s pulsating electronic score—while not as rich as his gorgeous, Oscar-nominated score for last year’s Phantom Threadhauntingly reflects the dog-eat-dog urban landscape surrounding Joe. The cue “Dark Street” lingers in the ears due to its tricky 15/8 time signature, while “Tree Synthesizers” arrives in the nick of time at the end credits to relieve and provide a proper closure for audiences.

Those who find Lynne Ramsay’s poetic gaze tedious to chew on upon first viewing might want to consider a re-watch of each of her four films. It took a re-watch, after all, for me to realize that several of the more devastating consequences later in You Were Never Really Here derive from one minor character’s unlucky glance towards the beginning. For Ms. Ramsay, true cinematic power lies in the smallest details and her movies serve to remind the cinema world at large of that important lesson.

(Parental Note: You Were Never Really Here has been rated R by the MPAA “for strong violence, disturbing and grisly images, language, and brief nudity”. It has also been rated 15 by the BBFC for “strong violence, injury detail, child sex abuse theme,” and “language”, and rated O (Morally Offensive) by the Catholic News Service for containing “skewed values, much gory physical and gun violence, rear male nudity, mature references, including to suicide and the sexual exploitation of underage girls, and frequent rough language.”)


About the Author

Renard N. Bansale once aspired to become an astronaut, before he found his passion in film discussion, criticism, conducting script-reading sessions of feature film screenplays, and annual Oscar tracking. Hailing from Seattle, WA, Renard graduated from JPCatholic in 2016 with a B.S. in Communications Media (Emphasis in Screenwriting) and is currently pursuing his M.A. in Theology online at the Augustine Institute.

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