You Were Never Really Here

by Greg Vellante

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday April 6, 2018

Joaquin Phoenix stars in 'You Were Never Really Here'
Joaquin Phoenix stars in 'You Were Never Really Here'  

At multiple points during Lynne Ramsay's phenomenal "You Were Never Really Here," Joaquin Phoenix's Joe stares himself down in a car's rearview mirror. It's a noteworthy ode to the final shot in Martin Scorsese's 1976 masterpiece, "Taxi Driver," where Robert De Niro's Travis Bickle catches a glimpse of his own eyes in the rearview and quickly flips the mirror back towards the streets of New York City.

It's not the only time you'll hear the two films discussed in the same breath. "You Were Never Really Here" inevitably owes a lot to Scorsese's seminal 1976 work, as evident through its protagonist's trade (a gun for hire, appointed to rescue young girls who are plunged into sex trafficking) and the ways in which he carries out his tasks (shots of Phoenix walking up the stairways of seedy homes and attacking bad men with his ball-peen hammer are sure to stir up recollections of "Taxi Driver's" final shootout).

But there's a key difference between Joe and Travis - Joe doesn't turn his mirror away. In "Taxi Driver," it's the city that drives its protagonist mad. In "You Were Never Really Here," it's the protagonist himself. As Joe, Joaquin Phoenix pours his all into a raw, bareboned performance that illustrates a shattered soul. His work here is so broken, so very sad, and it's incredible to watch arguably our greatest living American actor sink into a role that demands so much through its melancholic, at times maddening backbone.

Occupational hazards aside, Joe is a terribly depressed man, plagued with both thoughts of suicidal ideation and side effects of post-traumatic stress disorder, stemming from his childhood, military service and work for the FBI. In capturing the buried disturbances of Joe's memories, the editing work by Joe Bini is a meticulous exercise in dizzying immersion and decisive omissions. Revelations about Joe's past are often frighteningly sudden, and in their limited frequency the film becomes all the more terrifying through what it chooses not to show. The same goes for Joe's violent tirades against hideous men. The kill shots always cut in a second too late, limiting the bloodshed but keeping the focus on the tortured face of the man who's causing it.

The talented sound department further mirrors Joe's psyche, with cacophonous editing and mixing that corresponds perfectly with the disharmonious score by maestro Jonny Greenwood. The composer's work comes months after his exquisite score for "Phantom Thread," and his efforts on "You Were Never Really Here" couldn't be more opposite. The music paves a course for the film's spiral into a relentless panic attack, filled with sharp, dissonant chords, brutal string strikes, assaultive rhythms, occasionally upbeat adrenaline rushes and lovely melodic hopefulness - all delivered in sporadic, ephemeral doses.

Everything here, technically and thematically, is about the aftermath of trauma, whether it be a hammer to the head or a lifetime of painful experiences. When Joe is hired by Senator Albert Votto (Alex Manette) to rescue his daughter Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov) from a brothel where rich monsters cash checks to fuck young girls, he finds something undiscovered in himself by freeing the girl from capture. Nina only mutters a handful of lines throughout the film, but Samsonov is a talented wonder who conjures arresting emotional power in a single glance. The unspoken chemistry between Joe and Nina suggests two broken souls uniting in some semblance of a whole - Joe sees himself in Nina, and vice versa. Together, they try to find a way out.

A way out of what? As the title suggests, Joe and Nina were both never really here because their innocence was snatched away from them before they could ever truly discover who they are. Showcased uncompromisingly through her entire body of work, Ramsay understands that when something traumatic happens to you, that trauma now defines you regardless of how hard you fight it. Joe is his wartime trauma; he's his father beating him and telling him to "Sit up straight, only pussies slouch," to which young Joe responds "I must do better, sir," while his mother cries, tied up to a chair. Nina's waves of trauma are still swelling, and there's no telling how they will define her in years and decades to come. Both characters' distorted lives are profiled superbly through Ramsay's eye and cinematography by Tom Townend, with mirrors and windows serving as visual vessels for capturing how Joe and Nina have become refractions of themselves, strangers to their previous identities, seeing the world through glass.

But in finding each other, the pair also finds something resembling hope. It's a relationship saturated in both tenderness and tragedy, and once you realize how much Joe and Nina mean to one another, the stinging power of Ramsay's film truly takes shape. For a film that deals with as much murder, double-crosses and government conspiracies as a "Taken" movie, at the end of the day these plot elements are all just background noise. No, Ramsay is invested in something far more fascinating - two people who were never really here, seeing each other and being seen themselves for the very first time. Akin to the trauma its protagonists experience, the film assaults you from all angles then strands you to soak in the aftermath, all while reminding you there's still beauty to be found in life's brutality.