Lynne Ramsey’s follow-up to 2011’s We Need to Talk About Kevin delivers a very different film than its plot would suggest. In what could easily be the blueprint for another assembly-line Bruce Willis thriller, the plot hinges on a troubled war-veteran-turned-hit-man who tracks down victims of child trafficking. Mercifully, the lead role has been entrusted to Joaquin Phoenix, whose contribution elevates this straight-forward story of violent retribution into a complex, genre-defying portrait of a man who cannot escape his past.
In an early scene, we watch as Phoenix’s character, Joe, heads to a hardware store to prepare for what we suspect will be a particularly bloody night-shift. His weapon of choice? A discount-priced hammer. Incidentally, this is a clever plot point; the writers are apparently aware that the saturation of the film industry with gun violence has numbed us to its effects. For film violence to remain shocking, it needs to be manual, intimate, at close-range. Yet Ramsey does not yield to gratuitous gore. For a film that revolves around themes of violence and pain, the viewer is held at a distance from the bloodshed. It occurs off-screen, around corners, through glass or CCTV footage. Instead, the emphasis is on internalised violence, in the pain of unwanted memory and lost childhood.
The heavy psychological burden of Joe’s childhood abuse and memories of war is rendered visibly through his physical stature, his hunched back and slumped shoulders appearing to hold the weight of the world. Yet Joe is a morally ambivalent character; his method of justice to those orchestrating child trafficking rings is lawless and brutal in its own right. Phoenix makes a thoroughly engaging anti-hero, and his compulsive tics and intense gaze recall his stunning evocation of Freddie Quell in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master (2012).
Notably for an “action” film, You Were Never Really Here never misses an opportunity for stillness and introspection. Based on a slim novella by Jonathan Ames, the lingering shots and wordless scenes could to some viewers feel like padding to an overstretched short film. Yet the pacing gathers urgency, propelled by the aural assault of Jonny Greenwood’s brilliantly dissonant and prickly score, and culminating in one of the most memorable endings in recent film history. Patient viewers will find in this film a much-needed departure from conventional depictions of violence and trauma, and a film that, like Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, takes an inventive approach to tales of revenge.
Director: Lynne Ramsey.
Starring:Joaquin Phoenix, Judith Roberts, and Ekaterina Samsonov.