Written and directed by Lynne Ramsay (best known for We Need to Talk About Kevin), the harsh and traumatic You Were Never Really Here was one of the darlings of last year’s Cannes Film Festival, where it earned a seven-minute standing ovation after its premiere (in an unfinished state), as well as Best Screenplay honors for Ramsay and Best Actor for Joaquin Phoenix, who gives his best performance since Her.
The film wastes no time on things like subtlety and backstory, instead beginning by thrusting us into the aftermath of Joe’s (Phoenix) latest assignment. Heavily hinted that he’s a veteran and former federal agent, he cleans up a mess he made in a Cincinnati hotel room, after taking out kidnappers and delivering a teenage girl who had been taken into an underage sex ring back to her parents. As a hitman, he is as methodical as he is merciless. In this opening scene alone, he cleans up blood, disposes of evidence (including his weapon of choice – a ball peen hammer), and makes his way to the airport as inconspicuously as possible. He even has time to casually attempt suicide via plastic bag, a dark running gag he’ll return to many times.
All of these are hints at the horrific life he’s led to this point, but we never get full exposition or explanation of these character-informing factors. Instead, they creep in like well-timed jump scares, allowing us to see the constant torment of Joe’s existence. We don’t even see his face in full light for at least five minutes, during which time he playfully sticks a knife down his throat, teasing yet another suicide attempt.
When we finally do see Joe in all his – for lack of better term – glory, we see a truly transformed Joaquin Phoenix. He’s hulking, muscular, and full of scars. His beard is reminiscent of Logan, while his tragic weariness carries him like a truly exhausted John Wick. We can only guess at the horrors he’s seen in his time, but we know from his thousand yard stare and slouched gait that he’s seen more than we hopefully ever will.
When Joe takes his next assignment, everything falls apart. He’s commissioned by a State Senator in New York to find his runaway daughter, who he fears has been taken in by sex traffickers, and can’t involve police due to the scandal it would cause, as he’s campaigning with the Governor for reelection. When Joe recovers Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov of Wonderstruck), the entire operation goes to shit and the bodies start piling up. With no one and nothing left to live for, Joe follows the trail to rescue Nina one more time.
That’s essentially the story without spoilers. It’s essentially a modernized Taxi Driver, with an even more disturbed anti-hero than Travis Bickle. The film is a scant 90 minutes, including credits, which makes it shorter than some Disney cartoons.
But Ramsay makes sure to pack every one of those minutes with some truly spectacular world building and pathos. The biggest example is the sound design. Combined with a blinding score by Jonny Greenwood (recently nominated for his work on Phantom Thread), the sound effects and editing are cranked up way past 11 to hammer home just how tormented Joe is. It’s PTSD by way of Manhattan traffic. This is a man who can truly never know peace and quiet, and Ramsay makes sure we feel the chaos as viscerally as he does.
The action sequences are also brilliantly executed. When Joe first comes for Nina, the entire scene is a cross cut of surveillance camera footage set to “Angel Baby” by Rosie and the Originals. Alternating shots show full color looks as Joe lumbers down a hallway, juxtaposed with silent black and white footage of him bludgeoning perverts with his hammer, while stunned girls walk away like zombies.
Pop culture irony is one of Ramsay’s best tools here as well. “Angel Baby” is just one example. When we first meet Joe’s mother, she’s conked out in a chair watching Psycho on TV, a nowhere near subtle hint at the way-too-close dynamic between the two. A freshly rescued Nina watches one of the more hopeful scenes of The Shawshank Redemption right before the other shoe drops. After a battle with professional hitmen in his kitchen, Joe comforts a dying adversary by singing along with him to Charlene’s “I’ve Never Been to Me.” These are just utterly brilliant touches.
I can see why the film was so beloved at Cannes, but there are a few dings to make. For one, apart from Phoenix, there’s not much to the cast. Samsonov does well enough during her limited screen time, as does John Doman (Don Carmine Falcone on Gotham) playing Joe’s main business contact, but that’s about it. Also, while I was pleasantly surprised by how quick the movie was, Ramsay could have slowed down for some explanations. I like that we get to make our own assumptions about Joe’s past, but why not explain Nina’s penchant for counting down at certain intervals? It’s one of the first sounds heard in the aural jumble that opens the film, so why not tell us why she does that? It doesn’t take away from the massive character study of Joe to give us just a little bit of insight into his charge.
Still, this was an excellent film, and well worth the near-year wait from Cannes. It opened in Los Angeles today and will get a wide release on April 20th. See it if you can. It won’t even be that big of a time investment. And don’t be surprised if Amazon (the distributor) makes a big campaign for Phoenix at the end of the year.
Join the conversation in the credits below! What film should I review next? What’s your favorite Joaquin Phoenix role? If you were a contract killer, what would your weapon of choice be? Let me know!