There is a savagery in all of our hearts. It exists at the core, beyond all socialization or logic or whatever you might personally make of the soul or the concept of an integral goodness within us all. It exists at the lizard-brain level, the subtle tremors within the nervous system that instruct you to flee or fight, the basic gears on which the human form runs that tells us to fuck and kill and conquer. Throughout life, the better among the species learn how to discipline that, through exercise or religion or any number of the diversions we use to distract that base, depraved, wholly instinctive id that sows the urge to induce chaos. But not all men learn how to deal with it. Some drink, take drugs, cheat on spouses, and visit bodily harm upon their fellow man. Some give themselves over to vice, and in some particularly harrowing cases, some give themselves over to the kind of perversion for which there is no true atonement. And others, still, others become vessels of a more primal kind of violence. They are still human, they sleep and mourn and bleed like humans, but within them is something lesser than humanity. There’s just rage, where a human soul should ostensibly be.
Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) is one such being. In the early scenes of You Were Never Really Here, Lynne Ramsay‘s harrowing descent into that aforementioned kind of perversion, Joe goes about his appointed rounds. He takes his dispatch from a mysterious boss, he goes where he’s told, and he does his job. For Joe, a military vet and onetime federal agent, that job consists of recovering kidnapped young girls from sexual abusers, by any means necessary. A potential client asks Joe if he’s brutal, and Joe simply replies that “I can be.” But there’s more to Joe than the film’s premise suggests; he’s less a Punisher-esque avenger of the downtrodden than a profoundly disturbed man who manages to get by on a steady diet of pills, bracing violence, and emotional repression. Sometimes the latter works to his detriment, as Ramsay depicts Joe’s PTSD episodes with a staggering immediacy. Every so often, particularly when he’s alone and still and the world around him has gone quiet, visions of himself witnessing all manner of horrors as a child collide against the memories of his service days.
You Were Never Really Here is a thunderous achievement, the kind of film that can only emerge from a director working at the very heights of their powers. Ramsay, whose last feature was 2011’s devastating We Need to Talk About Kevin, exercises a stunning restraint throughout; at a taut 95 minutes, there’s not a single wasted shot, scene, or even movement to be found. The film progresses at a clockwork pace, continuously sustaining its ominous crescendo of paranoid terror to near-unbearable levels. As Joe begins his latest investigation, tasked by a senator to find and rescue his daughter Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov) from her abduction into a brothel full of underage girls, he soon discovers a broad conspiracy, one which threatens to destroy Joe and everybody around with him. All the while, Ramsay ratchets the sense of panic hovering over the scene to an excruciating degree, establishing an air of constant violence whether or not any is taking place onscreen. Ramsay’s violence isn’t just physical, although there are some genuinely shocking images to be found throughout You Were Never Really Here. It’s the violence of a world built on and run by exploitation, the violence of what we do to our most innocent, and once again, the violence within the self that creates and maintains those other forms.
The film is made of one stunning composition after the next, as Ramsay and cinematographer Thomas Townend use what a game hunter might refer to as “the entire hide.” This is cinema in every sense, the kind of film that demands your full engagement with every moving part of film as a medium as it unfolds. In concert with Joe Bini’s occasionally abrasive edits, Ramsay communicates the agony within Joe without demanding (as writer or director) that he make himself transparent for the audience. Those flashbacks are less flashbacks in the traditional expository sense than emotional windows into Joe; his memories jettison forth from his periphery in the same way that repressed memories do for so many, unbidden and without warning. There are images of stunning beauty throughout, but Ramsay’s visual achievements aren’t just stylistic. This is a film that utiliizes visual storytelling for maximum emotional impact, using elliptical cutaways and audio footage to create a new kind of urban nightmare. Like Taxi Driver before it, You Were Never Really Here places a deeply wounded man in the middle of a hellish world and watches as his better nature is attacked at every turn.
If Ramsay’s direction sets the tone, Phoenix’s performance gives the film its true compass. In one of his best performances to date, even by the standard of a career rife with them, Phoenix lays himself bare for Ramsay, creating a being who’s at once scraping and grasping for the light and coming to a place of acceptance about how it’ll never again be available to him. So much of Ramsay’s storytelling relies on Phoenix’s evocative manners, and whether he’s tapping into the eccentric oddity of his more comic turns or growing ashen when faced with evil in its most apparent forms, Phoenix gives the kind of haunting turn that only comes around a few times every decade or so. The film is narratively understated, and its true dramatic thrust emerges in the battle raging within Joe. At first it’s hard to reconcile the man who sweetly banters with his mother (Judith Roberts) with the one that then walks upstairs and screams and trembles in his bedroom, but that’s Joe. To stop recognizing his innate decency would be to give over to the horrors of the modern world, but Joe is struggling mightily, and Phoenix imparts that struggle in every minute gesture.
You Were Never Really Here is a masterpiece of form and performance, but somehow, its accomplishments in sound and aural texture manage to dwarf even those other accolades. Sound designer Paul Davies makes every small sound ring out with striking clarity, whether it’s the sound of Joe’s boots walking down an empty hallway or that of a ball-pen hammer colliding with human bone. In reflection of Joe’s terrified, finely honed senses, the film makes a meal out of every audio cue, filling the quiet moments with noise and the loud moments with a concussive force. Many of the moments hew toward the latter, however, thanks to Jonny Greenwood, who continues his astounding run of great film scores with his caustic work here. His score is sublime and dissonant, an exemplar of a recent run of film scores that use aharmonic tones to communicate a sense of dread and/or profound loss (Jackie, Under the Skin). His emerges as one of the best, however, in how it perfectly serves the film at every turn. This is coarse material, and Greenwood’s sounds are equally so.
There’s precious little in the way of peace or serenity to be found in You Were Never Really Here, but it’s the vague hope that peace can still exist, that justice can still be done, which drives Joe through one increasingly horrible scenario after the next. Its world is full of blind and, even worse, knowing indecency, but Ramsay finds a poignant sense of hope in her cipher of a protagonist. Joe has been hurt, over and over, and there’s no undoing that damage. But if he can break that cycle for somebody else, if maybe he can destroy the evil strangling the world around him, maybe there’s hope for us all yet.