Review by Bryan Yentz
Starring Joaquin Phoenix
Written by Lynne Ramsey
Based on the novel by Jonathan Ames
Directed by Lynne Ramsey
After leaving the theatre and trying to verbalize my conflicted sentiments for YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE, my friend perfectly encapsulated our mutual feelings by saying, “It was like someone was shaking a bottle of soda for two hours and you’re all ready for it to explode. But when it’s opened, it does nothing but poor out like normal.”
That about sums it up.
YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE (formerly titled “A BEAUTIFUL DAY”) follows the hammer-wielding exploits of Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), a mentally and physically scarred veteran who spends his days tracking missing girls. Between his bouts of heroism and skull-crushings, Joe nurtures his ailing mother while doing his best to stave off his own traumatic past. Things take a darker turn however, when he agrees to take on a high-paying job which has him seek out a missing senator’s daughter. Finding her is one thing, surviving the ever-escalating chain of events it causes—is another. What follows is a transcendental thriller of genre-mashing power that’s unfortunately undermined by director Lynne Ramsay’s art-house ambitions.
Paying blatant homage to films like MANIAC, BAD LIEUTENANT, TAXI DRIVER and oddly enough, the video game series HOTLINE MIAMI, YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE begins on a wonderfully cryptic note that’s as raw as it is mesmerizing. The voyeur-esque cinematography is complemented by the jaggedly electronic score by Johnny Greenwood (of RADIOHEAD), which sees rather normal moments punctuated by ear-shredding musical swellings or heavy synth beats. Such audible clamor and sound design combine in a way to better define the inward battle that’s always being waged with Joe. He’s a man both haunted by his familial demons, as well as those he developed fighting overseas. He’s broken to the point that his daily routines are consistently interrupted by flashes of tragedy and an inability to escape what he’s witnessed/been privy to. In this regard, his self-made conquest is one of constant redemption. Where he failed to protect in years past, he now attempts to do by any means necessary.
It’s as a character study that YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE truly succeeds as Joe is a sympathetic brute, but also, intimidating in his beer-bellied bulk (not to mention the numerous scars covering his body). He’s a doting son to his needful mother (Judith Roberts) and his scenes with her a heartwarming break from the bleak monotony of violence that is his existence. This character is fully brought to sorrowful life by Joaquin Phoenix. This is undeniably his movie and he’d better be nominated for it. While Joaquin’s cinematic digest is/has always been varied and dedicated, he’s never played a character such as this—and it fits him like a glove. His dour expression is rife with lament, and such guilt gives way to a distant look as he consistently becomes lost in inner turmoil. Such pain is only lifted when he’s around his mother and her presence offers a brief but welcome respite from the harsh memories. His mental degradation is on full display and the further he becomes embroiled with his most recent missing-girls’ case, his body goes through a similar breakdown of bruises and punctures that only swell/worsen over time (via quite commendable practical FX, I might add).
It’s during Joe’s initial raid of an underage brothel that I couldn’t help but feel someone else had stepped in to edit or neuter the film’s trek into moral corruption. The use of security cameras during this sequence is a brilliant touch, but in a blatant attempt to deny the viewer the satisfaction of Joe’s attacks on evil men, the movie constantly cuts from his hammer-blows to security cameras with no action occurring—before coming back to the feed with Joe as well as a glimpse of the ferocious aftermath. Directly following this, on his descent, there’s a strange shot that contains police cherry-tops (or so I believed) flashing across Joe’s visage as he takes a moment to think of his options. He then charges forward and in a blink-and-you-miss-it moment, there’s nothing causing those lights to flash (no cops), but a slightly-censored nude man just standing there—staring at him, not doing anything—and Joe swings. It’s a strange moment with no build-up (as the siege is concluded at this point) and felt as though the actual establishing shot of this nude enemy (and its end), were abruptly cut by someone within the studio. It has a purpose thematically, but technically speaking, it was jarringly bad in its editing. I’m not sure the reasoning, but I’m guessing that, if the full version depicted graphic male nudity then Amazon most likely took issue and wanted it spliced, as this sort of thing previously scared them enough to literally black-bar an entire ending sequence in the fantastic film, DER SAMURAI.
From here, the film progresses rather quickly into uglier territory as Joe is reluctantly thrust further into the abyss. His waning psyche is given no solace as the bodies begin to pile and it becomes clear that the only means to absolution is through further bloodshed. Amidst the horror, there are a handful of remarkably moving scenes which I won’t spoil here, but they add to Joe’s journey and character in unexpected ways.
As YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE stalks into its final act, I couldn’t wait for the ticking time bomb that is Joe to explode upon his adversaries. Here’s a man that’s teetering on the edge and by the end, when the chains are off and he heads toward destiny with a hammer lifted to strike—I fully expected (and hoped) for a brutally engaging finale that would send off our antihero in a way equivalent to TAXI DRIVER (the very film YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE was so willing to market itself as—for a new generation). Instead, I found the movie to fizzle where it should have detonated. The finale is less TAXI DRIVER and more LOST HIGHWAY with several surreal shots sprinkled amidst incredibly bland “aftermath” images. I wanted to see Joe take the fight back, and what I was given was a drab finale that recycles shots and completely takes the wind out of his merciless pilgrimage.
As I previously noted, the movie is surprisingly refrained in its violence (mostly images in the wake of savagery), so it’s here that I hoped—for all of the build-up—that we’d finally get to see what Joe is capable of when absolutely nothing holds him back. There are some creative ways in which Ramsay could have blended the art-house with the grit of ferocity, but instead, settles for rather standard shot composition and a “less is more” approach that’s not really “more” at all. Ultimately, there’s no real catharsis to the climax as, once again, in effort to forego expectation, Ramsay doesn’t want the audience granted the emotional satisfaction of a typical hero’s vengeance. I gather what she was going for and the point she was trying to push across with this refutation, but I felt the ending needed to show Joe’s violent release to truly be memorable. The narrative took such time in building and building and building to his inevitable barbarity that I yearned to see the devastating limits he was willing to surpass in order to save someone. Regardless of the violent output however (or lack thereof), there remains a powerful emotional resonance to Joe and Nina’s expedition together that is both earned and devastatingly bittersweet.
Throughout YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE, I kept feeling like Lynne Ramsay was giving me a high-five and every time I went to meet her hand, she drew it back. Psyche! Just as moments were escalating to something potentially grand, they instead, simply settled and ceased. YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE could’ve been an absolute classic, but it pulls back when it should be going all in. There are downright amazing pieces herein, but due to the flaccid nature of its climax, isn’t the memorable gem it could’ve been. It’s definitely worth a watch for Joaquin’s performance alone, but for me, I hoped to leave the theatre in stunned disbelief instead of despondency.