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Joaquin Phoenix mesmerises in ‘You Were Never Really Here’

By Joanna Di Mattia
The actor distils embodied trauma to its purest form in Lynne Ramsay’s genre-subverting thriller

In You Were Never Really Here, the fourth feature from Scottish filmmaker Lynne Ramsay, Joaquin Phoenix is Joe, a hired gun who specialises in liberating girls from sex trafficking rings. Early on, we see him at the conclusion of a mission in Cincinnati: cleaning up, removing the evidence, then heading home to Queens, where he lives with his frail mother (played by Judith Roberts). In this sequence, Ramsay presents Joe as a collection of fractured body parts – thumbs, feet and hands. He was just a head in the film’s opening scene, enclosed in a plastic bag, labouring for breath.

Joe is severely traumatised, barely whole. The film slowly discloses, in shard-like flashbacks, his paralysing recollections of physical and emotional abuse as a child, military service somewhere in the Middle East, and a stint with the FBI that brought him up close to the bodies of dead women in shipping containers. Joe is a man who has been broken by every institution he’s come into contact with, from the family to the government. His hallucinatory psychic pain is momentarily quashed when he wields his weapon of choice – a hammer, “Made in the USA” – in defence of other victims.

Ramsay’s adaptation of Jonathan Ames’ 2013 novella is lean and uncompromising. Joe becomes increasingly wounded, physically and psychologically, when he’s hired to retrieve Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), the teenage daughter of Senator Albert Votto (Alex Manette), from a brothel catering to paedophiles. Ostensibly a thriller or crime drama, You Were Never Really Here deranges what audiences expect from these familiar genres. There’s no grand heroic moment, no infallible saviour. Ramsay avoids cliché and sentiment at every turn, and her film is often morbidly funny, especially in its song choices. But what makes You Were Never Really Here so unique has little to do with the specifics of its narrative choices. In the end, what happens is less important than how.

Like Ramsay’s earlier films – Ratcatcher (1999), Morvern Callar (2002) and We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011) – You Were Never Really Here is a sensory experience. Dialogue is minimal. Exposition is avoided. Narrative is built through sound and images. We hear the chaos banging inside Joe’s head before we even see him. His experience of living with PTSD emerges through the sound design in sharp bursts of relentless, recurring noise, including street sounds and exacting voices from his past. It’s an unexpectedly orienting tool, aided by Jonny Greenwood’s choppy, discordant synth-and-strings score, which attaches to the brain before it twists around the nervous system. Ramsay puts us inside Joe’s head from the start, and continues to privilege his point of view throughout. Often shooting him from behind, her camera observes him as she wants us to – up close and unfiltered.

As a character study, the film stakes everything on the sympathy it generates towards Joe through these vivid, visceral elements. But Ramsay doesn’t achieve this alone. She’s blessed to have Phoenix, who reveals once again how mesmerising a screen presence he is. It’s not the first time the actor has played a messy, damaged individual. From the amoral Commodus in Gladiator (2000) to the unnerving Freddie Quell in The Master (2012), he’s building a career playing characters in varying shades of intensity. But he’s never predictable, connecting instinctive physical choices and gestures to find the humanity in the darkest of places.

In You Were Never Really Here, Phoenix distils this intensity to its purest, most lethal form. Ramsay provides no comprehensive backstory. We piece together what we can from the impressionistic flashbacks that add emotional texture. But mostly we know what we know about Joe because of what Phoenix shows us with his body. Joe barely speaks. He rarely smiles. It’s not just the tangible specifics – the extra weight Phoenix is carrying around his shoulders and belly that give Joe a hulking, menacing look, or the wild beard and knotty scars on his back and arms. Crucial to the success of Phoenix’s performance is that he communicates how Joe carries his wounds through the world and the constant strain this entails.

Phoenix makes Joe much more than an outline of a man who isn’t really there. Joe feels solid within the film’s frame; his movements are heavy and slow. The sound mix privileges the sluggish thud of his footsteps down a hallway or up stairs so they take on a strange, musical quality. Joe lumbers, exhausted, from one scene to the next. When a group of female tourists asks him to take a photo of them smiling together it triggers an enervating memory. Afterwards, he has to sit down to recalibrate. We see this pose repeated at various moments in the film – Joe seated, his shoulders slumped, body and mind shattered. He’s preoccupied by dying, dallying with suicide, but never quite succeeding. A sequence on a train platform illustrates how Joe inches towards action but is pulled back into inertia; the camera looks up at him as he looks down to consider the slats of the tracks, inching forward then away.

Phoenix’s performance in You Were Never Really Here communicates how anxiously Joe occupies space in the world, but it’s as much about interiority and stillness as it is movement. Most astonishing is how Phoenix makes Joe’s body tremble with its trauma – the memory of it and his ongoing immersion in it. He frequently holds back tears as if he knows that when they finally come he won’t be able to stop them. Phoenix makes his face and torso taut with Joe’s tension; we can feel him wrestling to gain control. There’s a shuddering in Joe’s eyes too, and Ramsay knows when to focus exclusively on them – fragmenting them in close-up, or isolating them in a rear-view mirror.

When the noise in Joe’s head briefly subsides, Phoenix also reveals his character’s significant tenderness. Joe’s relationship with his mother is an especially affectionate one. They sing and joke with each other; when he’s with her, it’s the most speaking he does. When he gently touches her feet with his fingers, he conveys something profound about what binds them. Joe’s interactions with Nina, with whom he also shares an unspeakable traumatic bond, are distinct for their softness too. Phoenix relaxes his body around hers, and makes Joe smaller, less threatening. It’s another layer in an already complex performance.

It’s Phoenix’s small gestures – like carefully straightening the bed linen after a mission – and not the explosive ones that show us most clearly who Joe is. There’s a moment in You Were Never Really Here when Senator Votto says he’s heard Joe can be brutal. “I want you to hurt them,” he instructs. It’s almost like a direction from Ramsay to Phoenix on what she wants his performance to do to the audience. But Phoenix doesn’t need to use an instrument as blunt as a hammer to inflict maximum pain. As the film comes to a close, the simple, childish gesture of loudly slurping a milkshake is direct, naked and truthful, and hurts more than any body blow that has come before it.

 

You Were Never Really Here opens on September 6.

Joanna Di Mattia

Joanna Di Mattia is an award-winning film critic who has written for many publications and outlets, including Senses of Cinema, Screen Education, SBS Movies, Kill Your Darlings, The Age, The Big Issue and Fandor.

You Were Never Really Here

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