“It’s okay Joe; It’s okay.” This is the phrase uttered near the end of “You Were Never Really Here,” but one that I had been saying since the ten-minute mark. Watching Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), a burly and thickly built man, become this slow and lumbering heft of focus. His skin is hard-shelled, keeping his emotions nerfed, and his beard is stout, holding his facial expressions hostage. He’s a man whose abusive childhood and traumatic experiences as a military officer have left him stuck in a numbified state. It’s that kind of feeling when you catch yourself staring at a wall and realize you’ve been doing nothing but staring at the wall in front of you, and then you snap out of that deep translucent state of mind and attempt to catch your breath. Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) cannot snap out of it though; he’s stuck. Trapped inside of his own mind, as we are cornered into this hypnotic character study, finding ourselves numbed by our evocation with this man’s trauma. Staring, studying, and silently following him into madness.
Lynne Ramsay is no rookie when it comes to this kind of densely crafted filmmaking. “We Need to Talk About Kevin” is one of her best and one that showcases her ability to tell a story using less than she needs too. She exemplifies that less is more kind of storytelling once again in “You Were Never Really Here,” as the violence is not helmed with a one-take wide shot lens, but is delivered in snippets of glimpses. We, the audience, watch Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) brutalize individuals, but in a way that either shows the finality of his assault or the beginning, never the entire thing, as, much like the story, we never see the full picture.
We meet Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), a burly and hefty man whose become distant from his emotions. Rooted in his trauma, Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) is a man whose numbness for pain allows him to become an unforgiving individual. Becoming the hired gun (or hired hammer in this case) for a private detective, and being the proverbial executioner for those who commit heinous crimes such as sex trafficking, pedophilia, and murder. It’s a dark and desolately crafted story that jolts into a mystery when a Senator’s (Alex Manette) daughter, Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), is taken. Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) is asked to take care of it, but when the job is complete, death and torture become common as this girl is someone’s favorite, and serves as a proverbial reminder to Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) and his past.
His past is not flushed out though; neither is his trauma. We’re given enough to know what happened, but not enough to feel it. It’s one of my only problems on first viewing because it causes you to ask questions and focus on the past, instead of the present, as if Ramsay was becoming far more focused on style than story. Forgetting to figure out what she wants to paint before she starts painting. Her cinematography does hypnotize you like a painting though, directing her director of photography, Thomas Townend, with a unique vision. Providing a still camera that watches and stifles emotions. It keeps Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) far away from us, like a protective shield. Maintaining a stern resistance to his pain, but creating a hypnotic experience nonetheless. Following in his slow movements with the grunge beats of a score that echoes back to “Taxi Driver,” we become captivated by his trauma. Continually digging at his skin, trying to find the roots to his emotions. Why are they there? What happened? How can we help you?
We can’t help him though; he’s too far gone. Ramsay makes sure of that as Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) becomes a shell of being whose agony swallows the screen. Bleakly filling its atmosphere, like that of “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” Ramsey manifest an atmospheric tension that spills into the audience. Silencing and mesmerizing like seeing a mirage in the desert. As if we’re searching for something to pull us out of this state of fixation, but she never throws a rope to save us. We are stuck with Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) as Ramsay never sentimentalizes him but instead lets us judge him. Never manipulating us to feel a certain way, Ramsay keeps Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) moving, going from a relatively healthy and cheerful interaction with his aging mother (Judith Roberts) to him gradually strolling through a house as he beats sickened men to death with a hammer. It’s audacious, but Ramsay lands the film with ease as I rarely asked for more than what she was giving me. If I did question, it was so I could grow to comprehend her reasoning for Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) and the answers to his riddles. Those answers like the camera, remain far away. Building space between me and the narrative.
Ramsay continues to dig into those in-between spaces of filmmaking. Crafting films with voids and vacuums as we are merely attempting to understand the inner workings that allow her to manifest these stories. What are their purpose and what are the tools that make them whole, is it a hammer? If so, are we the nail? What is she driving into us, and why is it so transfixing? It’s easy to get lost in these kinds of questions when watching one of her films, but I also get lost in the performances she crafts. Joaquin Phoenix is subtle and dour. His movements are slow and lethargic. His emotions are buried, rarely reaching to the surface. He’s our subject of study, and Phoenix masters every ounce of his depiction of this man. Carrying a blank face, but one that seems riddled with things to say. He’s a used canvas, attempting to be erased, and is simply stunning to watch.
“You Were Never Really Here” is a rigid story that is not created for most people. It's taut and lean, like a steak cooked without the fat. I could have used some extra fat though, as my questions stifled my experience at times. Pulling me out of my fixation, and leaving me desperate for a response. Much like Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), I became a man looking for my place in the story. Am I merely watching it? Or have I begun to forget what I’m watching?
It’s a strange and grim experience to have in the darkness of a theatre, but one that is entirely worth it. I am still attempting to retrace my steps, questioning if I was ever really there.