Director: Lynne Ramsay
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix
If you have any doubt that Joaquin Phoenix is one of the greatest actors of his generation, it should be put to rest by You Were Never Really Here, Lynne Ramsay's lean and brutal adaptation of the novel of the same name by Jonathan Ames. He is at once savage and fragile here, his character broken and haunted and willing to perform incredible acts of violence. He finds no catharsis in these acts and neither does the film, which offers the least glamorized depiction of violence in recent memory, replacing the stylized trappings that can make violence on film seem like something celebratory and replacing them with a sense of disorientation. Running at a breathless 90 minutes and never pausing to let you find your footing, forcing you to just let yourself be pulled into its narrative riptide, You Were Never Really Here is one of the most stunning viewing experiences of the year.
Phoenix plays Joe, a veteran who lives with and cares for his elderly mother (Judith Roberts) and makes a living by rescuing trafficked children. People hire him not only because he can successfully extricate the victims, but because he'll do so by going to extremes of violence. "I want you to hurt them," the father of a missing girl tells him, and that's exactly what he does in stark, simple fashion. The obvious comparison for the film is Taxi Driver, both being about mentally unstable men who rescue young girls from the sex trade, but the two films are like night and day. Taxi Driver fetishizes violence (for a purpose), from the bloody climax that earns its disturbed protagonist status as a hero to the "You talkin' to me?" scene, which is many things, one of them being a scene in which a guy thinks he's being pretty cool while imagining that someone is giving him an excuse to give in to the violent impulses of his fantasies, shot in a way that invites the audience to think he's pretty cool, too.
You Were Never Really Here adopts a different tactic. In terms of the protagonist himself, the film doesn't depict a man at peak fitness that would allow you to associate violence with beauty; instead it offers a graying, somewhat portly, and very tired seeming man in middle age. In terms of the violence itself, Ramsay chooses to view it from afar, removing the power of cinematic violence to act as a release valve for the audience. We watch Joe pull the trigger of a gun, but don't actually see people get shot (though we do see them after they've been shot). We watch Joe bust into a house where trafficked girls are being held, but the rampage is viewed via grainy black and white security video that leaves the acts somewhat indistinct. You Were Never Really Here is a film in which violence marks nearly every scene, but it's the after effects that the film is interested in, the trauma and the psychological toll of having to go on living in the wake of violence. It's telling that the only really graphic moment of violence is one that is self-inflicted.
Throughout the film Ramsay makes a concerted effort to be as non-exploitative as possible in depicting both physical and sexual violence. Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), the girl that Joe is trying to rescue, is never sexualized by the film, never used in a provocative way that allows the film to have its cake and eat it too, condemning her abuse while photographing her in a way meant to titillate. The violence is never framed in a way that's meant to make the audience think that it's awesome (not awesome that it's happening, necessarily, but that it looks awesome in the way that it's been stylized). At all times Ramsay's focus is on the lasting impact of violence rather than the actual acts of violence themselves, on how Joe has been traumatized by the things that he's done and the things that he's seen and on how Nina is traumatized by the things that have been done to her and what she has been driven to do in order to protect herself.
Likewise, Ramsay gives preference to dramatizing Joe's mindset over focusing on the mechanics of the plot. There's actually a lot going on, narratively speaking, in You Were Never Really Here as when Joe rescues Nina he becomes enmeshed in a large scale conspiracy that includes corrupt politicians, corrupt cops, and Joe being continuously one step behind some very bad people who are going to dismantle his life one person at a time as they work their way towards him in order to kill him. Yet the film feels almost plotless as it unfolds because of the jagged editing of Joe Bini (who previously worked with Ramsay on We Need to Talk About Kevin) that bounces between the past and the present, between what Joe is experiencing and what he's able to piece together has happened in his absence, and which gives the film an erratic, manic feeling that complements Joe's increasing feelings of desperation and despair.
The narrative strategy and the central performance work together perfectly. Phoenix's performance as Joe is never less than riveting, one that is surprisingly vulnerable given how the character exists at something of a remove from the world, so mentally and emotionally scarred that he's retreated inward. Even the light seems to have disappeared from his eyes and it's made clear in one crucial scene - dreamily rendered, the peacefulness of it standing in stark contrast to the chaos of the rest of the film - that the only thing that has kept him from killing himself is that it would leave his mother without anyone to take care of her. It's a brilliant performance, perhaps even his very best to date.