Synopsis – A traumatized veteran, unafraid of violence, tracks down missing girls for a living. When a job spins out of control, Joe’s nightmares overtake him as a conspiracy is uncovered leading to what may be his death trip or his awakening.
My Take – Since its premiere at the 70th Cannes Film Festival, were Joaquin Phoenix picked up Best Actor and an unfinished version of the film picked up Best Screenplay, I was really looking forward to director Lynne Ramsey’s latest feature, which finally releases in U.A.E theaters today. Thankfully, it was worth the wait! In just four features, director Lynne Ramsay has already made her mark as one of the most expressive filmmakers around.
Other than her infamous walk out from directing the eventual flop, Jane Got Her Gun, director Ramsay has mainly gained fame for divulging herself into dark subject matters, we she seems to thrive on, even though it has kept her from any kind of real mainstream success. Following the emotional turmoil of We Need to Talk about Kevin (2011), she delivers her latest, which can best be described as simply brutal. While I do agree that the film shares it similarities with Taxi Driver, it manages to carve its own original identity in a flawless way.
Sure some may find it boring, or incomprehensible, or whatever it might be, to say these opinions are wrong would be illogical, instead, they’re more misguided than anything, mainly, as this phenomenal indie thriller comprising of director Ramsay‘s script along with Joaquin Phoenix‘s performance and Johnny Greenwood‘s absolutely superb soundtrack, and ends up delivering one of the most awesome films I have seen in recent times. For art film lovers, director Ramsay‘s latest intrusive yet intimate character study is a must watch.
Based on author Jonathan Ames‘s novel, the story follows Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), a broken and tormented former FBI agent, and military vet, who now suffers from severe PTSD and disturbing hallucinations of his childhood, war, and failing to save a large group of young Chinese girls who were killed during an FBI raid.Living with his sick elderly mother (Judith Roberts), Joe makes his living as a fixer, to the jobs assigned by his John McCleary (John Doman), the middle man. Earning a reputation for his brutality, a particular reason he gets hired by frustrated parents to find missing kids, usually those kidnapped for sex trafficking purposes.
A new assignment has him look for Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), 13-year-old daughter of New York Senator Albert Votto (Alex Manette), who wants him to do whatever it takes to make her abductors suffer for their crimes. Things get even grimmer when Joe realizes that her abduction revolves around a political conspiracy involving Governor Williams (Alessandro Nivola). With a squad of hit men after him, this latest job might finally push Joe over the edge into total madness.
It is a gut-wrenching story on paper, but director Ramsay configures sundry conceits to present a “reductive” diorama of the events, rarely takes a predictable route to describe the progress of events. With the film being a great mix of reality and delusion, driven by the central character’s recurring past traumatic experiences. Sure, the first half hour of the film is a little confusing, quiet, and brooding with a sense of menace, but as time goes on, the film explains itself not by telling you, but by re-contextualizing those early sequences. The way the viewer is fed information in this film is amazing. One can learn much about Joe’s character simply by quick scene transitions. At no moment are we fully aware of Joe’s traumas because director Ramsey lets us incrementally explore his abused past, from parental to spousal to multiple war hurts, although her flashbacks are minimal and swift, we know enough and thankfully see little enough.
Yes, Joe’s character isn’t completely explained, his motives not entirely told, but that’s where his menace is derived and even as the protagonist, his mystery and his unpredictability makes him terrifying to watch. As some reviews have stated, I do agree that the film is hard to watch at times as it’s ultimately a story of abuse, as director Ramsey finds extreme warmth and catharsis in the midst of the films lost souls, like Joe, who is a marauding beast in the concrete jungle, adorned with scars from past beatings, both physical and emotional. The camera echoes this animal instinct, peering round dingy corridors, waiting with sinister placement in dark corners, all while unsettling the films central feeling.
Last but not the least, it is about how director Ramsay choose to present its action of brutality, and she ingeniously points up its aftermath instead of showing the actual execution, for example, during his first rescuing attempt inside a high-end New York apartment building, Joe’s action is entirely captured by the fuzzy security camera, and violence itself is ephemeral, what lingers behind is its aftermath, tangible, grisly and immutable.
Sometimes even the sound alone, combined with Jonny Greenwood’s strange and hypnotic score, is more than enough to creature a vivid picture in your mind of what is transpiring. It’s quite obvious director Ramsay simply isn’t interested in visualizing the bloodshed, and this shrewd approach skillfully makes the many horrific acts committed by Joe all the more wince-inducing, as her focus rests purely with Joe himself, beginning with a portrait of a man long pushed over the edge, before journeying even more inward and downward. The perpetuation of violence in a cynical world is the main theme here, and it’s depicted in a very inspired and original way thanks to the top notch direction, spectacular photography, the dark atmosphere and the tension that fills the whole film making this an incredible and unique experience.
In stark contrast, the scenes with Joe and his ailing mother are filled with warmth, provoking a smile at times and even a laugh or two. These scenes brings the necessary anchors to which the emotional involvement depends on. For what it’s worth, the abrupt ending left me wanting more, although a circle had obviously been closed. Like her previous pictures, director Ramsay continues to impress in how she weaves her images and sounds into a stylish and intoxicating mix, with her team comprising of cinematographer Thomas Townend, Editor Joe Bini and composer Jonny Greenwood. Granted, some of the symbolism verges on cliché, but Ramsay‘s eyes and sensibility are what make her grim subject matter immensely watchable, especially for art film lovers. In a sense, that is also the film’s biggest flaw.
I imagine a film like this is not going to become immensely popular because it’s one of those low-key thrillers that does not rely too much on conventional film making devices to keep tension going or to move the pace along. If you are film goer that needs a certain amount of big thrills or set pieces to keep you hooked, this certainly is not a film for you, as this film is very deliberately designed for audiences that want to see a portrait of a character, and don’t mind having questions left unanswered. The film also lacks a typical pacing structure of a normal film.
However, if you do decide to watch this film, you are definitely going to be blow away by Joaquin Phoenix‘s performance. In arguably his best performance yet, Phoenix is absolutely brilliant as the disillusioned protagonist who is tormented by his past, and now hits back at the cruel and violent world that haunted him. Giving a powerful and wholly commanding lead performance, he works wonders here by using gestures, actions, and expressions to communicate and develop his persona, as his character has relatively little dialogue. In supporting roles, Ekaterina Samsonov, Alex Manette, John Doman, Judith Roberts and Alessandro Nivola play their parts well. On the whole, ‘You Were Never Really Here’ is a slow-burn psychological thriller which despite its darkness and violence, manages to keep you hooked till the end.
Directed – Lynne Ramsay
Rated – R
Run Time – 89 minutes