“I can be,” says Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) when he’s told that he’s known to be brutal. His delivery is meek, almost restrained. His voice squeaks, but doesn’t quiver.
There’s a specific restraint to the main character of You Were Never Really Here, both in Phoenix’s performance and Lynne Ramsay’s direction. We know very little about him, but they waste no time to let us see that he’s damaged. He’s a vet that witnessed something that’s stayed with him through the years. He sees himself as a young boy, who’s often in the room with him. And he likes to suffocate himself in plastic bags, just to the point of ending it all before he tears it open.
We also know that he’s a fixer of sorts. He rescues kids from the worst possible circumstances. Like the tone of the film, his methods are minimal, centered on the use of a steel hammer. He does it off book to save (wealthy) worried parents from endless bureaucratic red tape in exchange for a certainty of closure.
Joe’s latest job, however, ends up blowing the lid off of a deeper scandal with much worse people that he’s used to dealing with — which is saying something.
Despite the escalating violence that engulfs the story, the film never loses sight of its vision. It’s precisely focused, just left-of-center (figuratively speaking). It’s painstakingly deliberate, and it shows as little as it tells, which only seems to help pull viewers in. You study everything in the frame, every scene. The lack of a score only deepens the long pockets of silence or moments only scattered with background noise.
You see everything from Joe’s perspective, both inside his head and out. He dominates the movie, despite his perpetual inclination to disappear, to remain anonymous, to have never have been there.
Inevitably, it’ll draw some comparison’s to 2011’s Drive, mostly due to the slow pacing punctured with moments of brutal violence. While Drive comforted viewers with a soothing, ambient score throughout, and even Taxi Driver had its warm, foggy saxophone, You Were Never Really Here trades all that in for more of both extremes.
While the movie relishes in its silence, and even the most violent moments, which are substantial, are rarely seen taking place. Instead, we’re shown the red-stained aftermath, bodies torn apart by bullets or a hammer. We see the consequence, but never the action. It’s as if Ramsay is deliberately following everything two or three frames behind convention, sewing some low-key anxiety as to what’s coming next.
In that regard, it’s undeniably bold filmmaking that manages to be both absorbing and uncomfortable, and both Phoenix and Ramsay go all in to bring it to life.
You Were Never Really Here is open in select cities now, and will open nationwide April 20th