Joaquin Phoenix Torments in 'You Were Never Really Here'
Vigilante justice takes a certain nihilism and exposure to trauma to execute properly. Joaquin Phoenix clinically demonstrates these prerequisites in his latest performance, You Were Never Really Here.
In French theaters under the title A Beautiful Day, this curt hour and twenty-minute thriller operates at maximum efficiency while experimenting in aesthetics, mainly in the form of rapid fire flashbacks. Phoenix plays Joe, a burly and bearded hired hand who has seen enough atrocities to keep his mouth shut and take precautions that may seem bizarre to someone whose mind isn’t plagued by a violent past—not to mention violent assignments in the present.
Directed by Lynne Ramsay, the Scottish director makes several key choices that prove her status as an auteur to be reckoned with.
Principally with the flashbacks, Ramsay could have chosen instead to piece together a bottom-up web of intrigue that goes all the way from the back alleyways familiar to Phoenix to the New York State Governor’s mansion. All of the elements for such a mind blowing story are there: Joe has to rescue a state senator’s daughter (Ekaterina Samsonov) from human traffickers who have her held captive at an underage brothel; Angel (Frank Pando) appears to have been burned as a gas station attendee money launderer and source for the whole vigilante justice operation run by John McCleary (John Doman); Governor Williams (Alessandro Nivola) appears to have a shared taste for underage girls with the folks Joe is after in the first place.
Instead, Ramsay refuses to directly connect the dots, leaving the viewer with more of a meticulous examination of the tip of the iceberg rather than a comprehensive wide look at the whole thing. While Joe is not the film’s narrator, he’s nonetheless an unreliable protagonist to follow, oftentimes having to even question himself about whether what he’s seeing is a hallucination or the task at hand.
Joe’s flashbacks seem to be circling inward towards a deep trauma from his childhood involving his father abusing his mother and Joe coping through asphyxiation in a plastic bag, an ill advised stress management tactic he maintains in his present hit-man work. Running parallel to Joe’s past childhood trauma is an ongoing one involving Nina, a state senator’s daughter who ran away from home and has landed herself in a never-ending nightmare as a sex worker at age 13. Played in a bold and commanding silver screen performance by Samsonov, Nina’s simultaneous numbness and awareness to the horror surrounding her makes this film linger and even torment its viewer.
It might not feel like there is enough to put together for a comprehensive understanding of the film by its end, but it is precisely that choice by Ramsay to evade the comprehensive and rest comfortably in subjective uncertainty that makes this film a cut above the rest. The simple experience of sitting through the present for just an hour and twenty minutes for You Were Never Really Here is enough of a challenge with the suspense and hurtling towards inevitable violence, shown in such a removed way that makes it foreign to any conventional thriller.
Two scenes in particular lend themselves to searing memories.
One involves Joe taking in a strangely intimate moment of connection with a man whom he’s just fatally wounded, and who may have killed Joe’s mother. How such a scene can be beautiful when accurately described above requires buying a ticket to see it in theaters. The other may be studied in film school for quite some time, showing Phoenix submerged between the water’s surface and its base in a kind of quiet purgatory as he tries to sing a body bag—and himself—with rocks he found from the pond’s shore shoved in any pocket of space possible. Time seems to stand still between Joe’s breaths, and the light creeping into the mid-depths of the black water are fit for a Caravaggio painting.
Streaming it on a computer doesn’t do You Were Never Really Here justice. In an era of an ascending TV genre and an existential crisis for film, this is one of the few movies remaining that merits a genuine cinematic experience.