France/UK | 2017 | Directed by Lynne Ramsay
Logline: A man hired to rescue trafficked girls struggles with his inner demons on his toughest job yet.
Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) is an extractor, a hired gun (hammer, to be precise) who infiltrates sex trafficking rings and rescues the young girls who have been abducted. It’s a messy job, as Joe is known for his brutal methods, and he has the horrendous scars to prove his mettle. He is also plagued by nightmarish flashbacks from his damaged youth and tours of duty as an adult in the military and within internal affairs.
Joe uses auto-asphyxiation to alleviate his PTSD, which in turn exacerbates his psychological condition, with the dark abyss of suicide never far from his precarious perch. He self-medicates with self-harm. It’s the only avenue he understands and trusts. The rescuing provides him with slight relief, as it allows him to believe he is saving a sliver of himself each time, or the memory of himself.
Joe visits his frail mother (Judith Roberts), who still lives in his childhood home. He cares for her, but the household memories are like a demonic shroud. His job supervisor, McCleary (John Doman), has a new and lucrative assignment, to rescue Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), the troubled, adolescent daughter of New York State Senator Votto (Alex Manette).
With Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood providing a brilliant, nerve-shredding electronic and orchestral score as the spine, we follow Joe’s path into the bowels of darkness. Shards of his harrowing young domesticity and chaotic and violent career pepper the mise-en-scene like stabs from a nasty migraine. Joe is simultaneously jaded and resilient, soldiering on, at all cost, and this job will take him to the very edge of the precipice.
A powerhouse performance from Phoenix (and though I am forever reminded of his late, older brother whenever I see Joaquin on screen I believe the younger brother has absorbed his tragic brother’s animal spirit), he commands the screen with his hulking form, like a kind of black angel, searching for a deliverance, aching for release, desperate for oblivion to take his hand.
Just as Ramsay has done with previous adaptations, Morvern Callar and We Need To Talk About Kevin, she has possessed a novel and made it her own, tackling the implosion of the psyche due to external forces, framing trauma as catharsis. It’s a disturbing, but stunning portrait. The violence seethes, both implicit and explicit (though the graphic element tends to be the aftermath), the tone grim as nails. The title, You Were Never Really Here, seemingly refers to psychological removal for self-protection, further hammering (if you’ll pardon the pun) the point home with past tense and in third person.
Like a new millennial mutation of Taxi Driver this searing, blistering study of violence and fractured retribution is, quite simply, a masterclass in cinematic technique, and one of my very favourites of the year.