You Were Never Really Here movie cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Ekaterina Samsonov, Judith Roberts
You Were Never Really Here movie director: Lynne Ramsay
You Were Never Really Here movie rating: 3.5 stars
An abused child, a Gulf War veteran, an ex-FBI agent, a hitman who seems to specialise in rescuing trafficked girls… How many ghosts would such a person live with? Many, in this film by noted director Lynne Ramsay (We Need to Talk About Kevin), who has also written the screenplay from a short story by Jonathan Ames. In the being of actor Joaquin Phoenix, who specialises in turn in bringing to screen characters fighting inner demons, you feel the pain of each of those ghosts. His eyes haunted, peering out from hair the texture of an abandoned animal; his back bearing welts of not-yet-forgotten wounds; his body constantly bleeding from freshly acquired ones; his gently rising stomach showing signs of age and tiredness, Phoenix’s Joe is a man struggling to come up for air.
Ramsay, turning Ames’s story into a deep inwards look at the character of a man such as Joe, also literally employs that tool. At the end of almost every day, Joe teeters on the verge of suicide, his favourite tool being a plastic bag held tight over his face. On most days, particularly after he encounters a girl that gives him a reason to live, each such bid is accompanied by an ominous countdown. Just before that winds down to 0, something or someone summons Joe back.
Once the girl named Nina, played by an astonishing and almost entirely silent Samsonov, enters the picture, you know how the story of Joe and her will go. Particularly as we know that Joe, who is known to be “brutal” even by the standards of the circle he operates in, has a kind side to him that he reserves for his old mother (played by a sure-footed Roberts). Joe wipes uncomplainingly a soap-covered wet bathroom after her, he indulges her little jokes, and he hums a song with her as they sit wiping the kitchen silver at night. Still, there is a tenderness that surprises in the melting of Joe when he meets Nina, in how he ruffles her hair under a pink towel, in how he carries her, and how he tries to shield her eyes from the blood and gore that has been his life.
The film also seeks to explore if violence, even revenge, sets you free, or does it turn into an end in itself — watch out for Joe’s smile when he sees a hammer, and his shock when a person he is after turns up dead. What happens after that gunshot has been hired, or in this case that hammer wielded against a skull? Is there a morning after such a night?
In this walk on perhaps the darkest side of human nature, involving young girls and shady men, Ramsay spares little grime. However, in focusing entirely on Joe, it can be faulted for reducing those girls almost to a peg on which to hang his story. The film is also disturbingly stylised given that it is dealing with a crime of such nature — eventually leading up to a resolution that is almost too easy when all it has done is ask us to toughen up.