|You Were Never Really Here|
by Peter J. O'Connell
You Were Never Really Here. Released: April 2018. Runtime: 89 mins. MPAA Rating: R for strong violence, disturbing and grisly images, language, and brief nudity.
You Were Never Really Here, directed and co-written by Lynne Ramsay, centers around Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), a veteran of law enforcement and the military, who now works for McCleary (John Doman), a sketchy private eye. Grizzled, hulking, sometimes suicidal, Joe's specialty is recovering missing teens, and his favorite tool is a ballpeen hammer. His reputation is that of a strange and brutal guy, but one who gets results.
You see, Joe suffers—and, boy, does he suffer!--from post-traumatic stress disorder from his previous careers, exacerbated by his current one. His current career's most recent assignment involves finding Nina (Ekaterina Samsonova), the missing innocent 13-year-old daughter of an ambitious New York politician.
The most striking feature of Ramsay's film, however, is not that we watch the unusual Joe going through his world, following half-baked leads on what becomes a bloody rescue mission with surprising, even shocking, twists and turns. What is truly striking is that Ramsay has us see Joe's world as Joe sees it in all his fragmented, hallucinatory, paranoid state of mind.
Normal sounds become unbearable screechs. Normal lights become painfully vivid. Violent flashbacks interweave with old, sweet melodies. What is real and what is imagined, what is present and what is past are difficult to distinguish. And always there is, for Joe, pain, physical and psychological.
The direction, cinematography, and editing of You Were Never Really Here show Ramsay to be a filmmaker of great talent. And Joaquin Phoenix is one of filmdom's best actors. Some feel that he is today's Brando. He certainly totally “inhabits” Joe. All this being said, however, it is easier to respect the film than it is to recommend it. A little “strong violence, disturbing and grisly images” (MPAA rating) and PTSD from inside the head go a long way—and You Were Never Really Here has way more than a little of these.
“Footnotes” to the film: (1) Intentionally or not (probably not), the title of Ramsay's film calls to mind a classic quip made by David Letterman on his late-night TV show in 2006 at the end of a very spacey appearance by Joaquin Phoenix: “Thank you for not being here tonight.” (2) Moviegoers who might be interested in another current film exploring the shaky boundary line between reality and hallucination should check out Unsane. In this movie a woman (Claire Foy) who thinks that she is being stalked finds herself involuntarily committed to an institution. Imagine her horror when she comes to believe that her stalker from the outside world is also working in the institution! Unsane is directed by Steven Soderbergh, and, interestingly, was filmed mostly on an iPhone.