Director Lynne Ramsay’s latest film throws us into the subversive reality of a disturbed killer.
Lynne Ramsay’s psychological thriller film opens with Joaquin Phoenix’s character lying on a motel bed and asphyxiating himself in a plastic bag. With every inhalation, it becomes harder for him to breathe in and out. It becomes harder for us to watch.
As he finally tears off the bag, we are thrown fiercely into one man’s disoriented world, where violence and confusion persists. The film follows Joe, a traumatized veteran who still lives with his mother and who specialises in retrieving trafficked girls for a living.
We see him cleaning a hammer covered with blood splatters. It is his weapon of choice for caving in skulls. Blue and red flashing lights from two police cars parked outside are gleaming through the motel’s front window. As Phoenix’s character sneaks out through the back door, the tension starts to build.
As a “hired gun”, Joe is known for his exceptional brutality to achieve his ends. This reputation for violence leads him to Senator Votto (Alex Manette), whose 14-year-old daughter named Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov) has disappeared. Votto hires Joe to retrieve the girl with the words: “I want you to hurt them.” Joe accepts the offer with a cool gaze.
But for the Scottish director, Lynne Ramsay, the plot is only of secondary importance. Instead, she draws us into Joe’s distorted psyche. The film develops into a character-study: we follow Joe in every scene, in every act. We see him struggle with violent flashbacks from his childhood and from the Gulf War, which make his job only harder. Through this fragmented window in the character’s past we begin to understand how complicated he really is – we understand where his destructive nature stems from.
We, like Joe, are caught in a dark and disoriented reality. Truth and hallucination become harder to discern. We start to doubt everything that happens around him. The character, the scenes, the sound design, the city, all feed into the fragmented nightmare we now find ourselves in. Joe is never really in control and snippets from his past lead us to believe he never really was.
Joaquin Phoenix’s performance is powerful and intense. Joe is not just a cold-blooded vigilante, instead, he is intriguingly complex. The tragic character finds himself balancing constantly on the edge of life and the wish to die, of empathy and extreme outbursts of brute force.
The style of the storytelling is wonderfully elliptical. Lynne Ramsay makes sure you are not guided through the story through narrative and dialogue, but she throws you in and you have to find your way through it yourself. You Were Never Really Here is an experiential movie that exceeds in giving a very rich picture of someone’s dark inner life without being pretentious.