Joaquin Phoenix is that rare breed of movie actor who seems much less interested in fame and acclaim than he is embracing characters who are unusual and often very unlikeable, yet remarkably engaging despite (or perhaps because of) their uniqueness. It is hard to imagine any other contemporary performer willingly taking on characters as diverse and discombobulated as the lovelorn Theodore in Her, stoner detective Doc Sportello in Inherent Vice or the explosive Freddie Quell in The Master. In fact Phoenix’s portrayal of Jesus was the only remotely bearable aspect of Garth Davis’ 2018 snooze-fest Mary Magdalene, while his Academy Award-nominated turn as music legend Johnny Cash in Walk the Line is perhaps one of the best cinematic renditions of a real-life character we have seen. It is no surprise then that Scottish director Lynne Ramsay turned to Phoenix to play Joe, a psychologically damaged combat veteran, in this adaptation of a book by Jonathan Ames, her first film since 2011’s We Need to Talk About Kevin.
A reclusive figure who lives in Brooklyn with his elderly mother (Judith Roberts) and haunted by the horrors of his combat experiences and an abusive childhood, Joe brings a very particular skill set to his work for a private detective. In the opening scene, we see little of what unfolds in a hotel room as Joe goes about his business – the nature of which is established via the few things we do see, such as a roll of duct tape and a bloody hammer – before we meet our protagonist as he makes his exit from the hotel. When a Senator’s underage daughter Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov) is kidnapped by a sex trafficking ring, Joe is tasked with retrieving her safely and sets about gathering the requisite equipment – the aforementioned tape and hammer at the top of his shopping list – before staking out the townhouse where she is being held.
Ramsay never resorts to sentimentality and she doesn’t seem interested in manipulating how the audience is supposed to feel about Joe. Although he is tender and funny with his mother at times, he seems unable to make an emotional connection with anybody else and his motivation to complete the mission is the paycheque, rather than any sense of moral duty. All but invisible amongst the hustle and bustle of New York, the city roars around him as a relentless rumble of noise. His moments with Nina seem to lift the veil of darkness momentarily until things take an unexpected turn and he again has to summon his most primal impulses. The torment that plagues Joe is so relentless that there are several moments where his suicidal ideation seems like it will prevail. Only 14 at the time of filming, Samsonov looks even younger on screen and, whilst we thankfully never see what depravities Nina is forced to endure, we are left in no doubt that, like her saviour, she is destined to relive the horrors of her experience forever more.
There are nods to films such as Taxi Driver and Leon: The Professional and the score from Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood creates a propulsive energy that engulfs the story in an atmosphere of tension and dread. You are never really sure what Joe is likely to do next, either to himself or somebody else and, as a result, You Were Never Really Here is a taut, intense experience that, at 90 minutes, is devoid of any unnecessary indulgences. It is hard to imagine that Phoenix takes on such diverse roles for any reason other than the challenge that such characters demand, but regardless of his motivations, we should be thankful that he is willing to go where so many others fear to tread. Certainly not for all tastes, You Were Never Really Here delves into the damaged mind of somebody who seems unable to find any kind of redemption amidst the darkness.