This movie, on paper, sounded a bit like a 90’s action movie. A politician’s daughter gets kidnapped, and it’s up to ex-soldier-turned-hitman Joe to get her back at any cost. Fortunately Lynne Ramsey took this standard setup and elevated it in every way possible.
Beautiful visuals, an excellent score, and Joaquin Phoenix’s masterful performance turn what could’ve been a violent schlocky slasher into a portrayal of a deeply damaged man channeling his anger the best he can. In this case, that means beating child predators to death with a hammer for money.
You Were Never Really Here
Director: Lynn Ramsay
Release Date: April 6, 2018
Based on a novella of the same name by Jonathan Ames, You Were Never Really Here gives us an intimate look at a violent killer. Based out of New York City, Joe’s shown flying to and from Ohio to perform a hit on an unknown victim, then returning to collect payment. He initially seems like he might be a complete sociopath, but the movie is quick to humanize him. He lives with and cares for his elderly mother in a small, out-of-the-way apartment. When he’s there, he seems like a normal guy, joking and bickering with his mother. It seems hard to connect the two.
His handler calls with a new job, and he falls into a sort of trance as he goes through the motions of preparing for the next job. In this case, he’s tasked with rescuing a politician’s daughter, who was kidnapped and ended up in a brothel for underage girls.
It’s no spoiler that he succeeds in finding her, but the job quickly goes sideways as there’s clearly something much bigger going on than was initially let on. His fierce determination to ensure the young girl’s safety makes it clear that for him, extreme violence is a means to permanently free the victimized from their abusers. The money he receives supports him and his mother, but it’s obviously not why he’s in this profession.
The movie’s plot is fairly basic, but Lynne Ramsay’s direction is spectacular. Creative use of cuts keeps the movie’s pacing on point, and even helps keep the viewer from getting fatigued by the movie’s frequent, brutal acts of violence. Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood provides a score that’s most easily described as droning, but I mean that in a positive way. It’s intense and fills otherwise static scenes with exactly the kind of emergency or emotion they need to portray.
Joaquin Phoenix is haunting. Even though he spends a good chunk of the movie staring blankly, he still manages to let his character’s unfathomable sadness tinge his otherwise expressionless face. We’re given frequent but very brief looks at his past – a traumatic childhood, a tragic experience in the military, and a devastating failure during his post-military career. We’re given an understanding of why he’s taken on the role of hitman. He can’t live in a world filled with helpless people preyed upon by monsters.
On the surface, his cold brutality makes it seem like he became a monster himself, but it’s clear his experiences have led him to lose all faith in due process. He knows the urgency of rescuing a child from a traumatic situation. Even if he brings them back alive, their lost innocence puts them on the same road he’s traveled down. The film even quietly acknowledges that some of the people he’s killing are people just like him, who took the darker path.
This movie was a rough watch, but one of my favorites of the year thus far. Even with all the wordless scenes, it never lost momentum, and is an excellent example of ‘show, don’t tell’ in film. We get so much of Joe’s story from silent flashbacks, visual cues, and inference, with essentially no direct exposition.
My main gripe is how much the central plot requires suspension of disbelief. The fact that the girl he’s sent to rescue is a well known politician’s daughter detracts from the story overall. It would’ve made much more sense if she were just some random lost girl tied up in the politician-adjacent child prostitution ring. It wouldn’t have prevented the rest of the plot from playing out at all. There’s also the issue of his weapon of choice – he goes in with a hammer to situations where, in all likelihood, everyone would be armed. It’s a silent-ish weapon and he does pull off a lot of stealth kills, but it’s kind of a stretch that he’s survived this long killing this way. In a situation where someone IS armed and has him dead to rights, he manages to get the gun away from the guy, and it just didn’t make sense.
These far from kill the movie, but they were hard to ignore when so much of the plot is ‘rescue the girl, kill people with a hammer’. What makes this movie so great, though, is that the relatively simple plot is buoyed by layer upon layer of fantastic acting and filmmaking. Since this film is distributed by Amazon Studios, I’m hoping that even if it doesn’t make a splash at the box office, it’ll have a long life on their streaming platform.
You Were Never Really Here opens April 6, 2018.