You awaken submerged, first in water, then wrapped in suffocating plastic that echoes the coping mechanisms of a traumatic childhood memory. Scottish filmmaker Lynne Ramsay elevates the vigilante tropes of "You Were Never Really Here" into a sensory experience dripping with the haunting psychological cost of death. Dizzying pulsating soundscapes seamlessly edited around fleeting glimpses into disturbing past events and a subversive vision of vengeance; Ramsay and star Joaquin Phoenix have delivered something that refuses to be forgotten.
Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) is a 'gun for hire' that provides a special service. If you have a missing child and you'd prefer those responsible to suffer a brutal end, he's your man. On a job to retrieve a Senator's daughter (Ekaterina Samsonov) from sexual captivity, Joe is ensnared by a plot to protect a bent Governer's perversion from being interrupted.
Ramsay is a fascinating filmmaker, making calculated choices about where to position the viewer. Ramsay is not interested in the gratuity of violent acts, in pitiless actions of a killer. In the first whole job that we see Joe undertake, we learn the layout of the building he must infiltrate via a network of black and white, stationary, security cameras. Rather than getting an intimate point of view to increase the suspense as he stalks through the halls demonstrating his savage efficiency, Ramsay keeps her distance. We catch Joe often in the wake of the killing, rather than in the act. Instead, we get up close and personal to Nina Votto (Ekaterina Samsonov), who has retreated inward, trying to disassociate what's about to happen to her body from her mind when she's rescued. All of this, like the rest of the film, occurs as a multi-layered soundtrack melds incidental music, score, the sounds happening in the scene and remixed through Joe's damaged mind. Cinema speakers almost don't do it justice, this could be one that you want to hear through noise cancelling headphones.
Since the untimely departure of Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Phoenix has ascended the ranks to the best actor of his generation. Phoenix's Joe in "You Were Never Really Here" is yet another fascinating character to add to his repertoire. Joe is a husk of a man, outwardly unassuming and unkempt. That casing houses scars from abuse and attempts to protect innocence from government institutions, seen in flashbacks. The chaos and rage are tempered with remnants of normality that you see as he's caring for his Mother (Judith Roberts).
One cursory search Google will see that Ramsay's subjective portrayal of damaged masculinity has drawn a tsunami of comparisons to Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader's 1976 masterpiece "Taxi Driver"; the unreliably told tale of a deluded psychopath Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro). There are some inescapable similarities in the story. Both Joe and Travis are vigilantes entangled in playing hero to young girls trapped in the seedy underbelly of New York. There are a few, I assume intentional nods to Scorsese's iconic aesthetic. As Joe drives through the city, Ramsay and cinematographer Thomas Townend cast the lights cast on his face like the kaleidoscope of thoughts going through his mind.
There is are stark differences in each text. For starters, in "Taxi Driver" the city is an organism. Travis is a product of the cesspool, so-to-speak, who feels like he's being called to intervene. For Ramsay, the town, the job, the ill-fitting clothes are the distractions; Joe may be anonymous, but his damaged energy reverberates. When Joe is standing on an elevated rail platform, looking through the tracks to the traffic below, you can almost hear him being beckoned to fall. Joe feels like he's going unnoticed, but Ramsay places a perceptive unnamed female commuter who cannot take her eyes off of him. Ramsay is looking for the events that resonate though Joe and to examine his actions through a prism of life-altering situations.
Scorsese said that "Taxi Driver" was largely inspired by John Ford's 1956 western "The Searchers" starring John Wayne. Wayne's Ethan Edwards, a Civil War Veteran (for the South) embarks on a mission to rescue his niece from Comanche raiders, taking his prejudice along for the ride. Joe's past efforts for justice from within governmental institutions have failed, and his trajectory echoes Ethan much more than Travis. In the final moments of "The Searchers," Ethan Edwards (Wayne) is seen cutting his undeniable silhouette walking out the door of his homestead. In those final steps, one doesn't feel contentment. Ethan is defined by an impossible cause, that when fulfilled means that he must face the harsh truths about himself. In the closing moments of "You Were Never Really Here" (that I won't spoil), Ramsay and Phoenix portray those indelible doubts too; thought from within. John Ford has 146 directing credits to his name, Lynne Ramsay had eight. With such a command of the form, one shudders to think of Ramsay's next 138.
Directed by: Lynne Ramsay
Written by: Lynne Ramsay (based on the book by Jonathan Ames)
In Limited Release from 6 September 2018 in Australia through Umbrella Entertainment
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