You Were Never Really Here

youwereneverLynne Ramsay’s filmmaking in You Were Never Really Here is gorgeously precise. We feel there isn’t a shot or an image that isn’t there for some reason, though the reason may not at first present itself. The spare narrative follows Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), who, after stints in the Marines and the FBI, has fallen — backwards or sideways — into being a hired gun, or hired hammer (his weapon of choice). Joe seems to specialize in rescuing trafficked girls, and oblique flashbacks tell the story of male predators abusing women and children — in Joe’s lines of work and also in his own childhood. He lives with his mother in a modest home, and sings “A, You’re Adorable” with her in the same cracked, mumbly voice in which he accepts his bloody, lonely missions.

Who is the “you” in You Were Never Really Here? The title might be Joe’s self-admonition — he’s atoning for the crucial times he wasn’t there, wasn’t able to help. But the movie exists more as a tone poem than as a psychological portrait or, heaven knows, a plot. It’s about Joe burning a photo, tossing it into a trash bin, and then extinguishing its flame by dropping a Bible on it. It’s about how Joe and an adversary pause, on their backs, and sing “I’ve Never Been to Me” along with the radio as the assailant bleeds out and reaches for Joe’s hand — and Joe accepts it. That one image says more about what Christianity should be than a lot of the Bible does. Religions, or just male-dominated systems, put out our light.

Phoenix is, as usual, committed and intense, with pockets of warmth and even humor that Joe shares with his mother (played by Judith Roberts, who was Beautiful Woman Across the Hall in David Lynch’s Eraserhead and is still, in her eighties, a striking woman). He does much to drain out the stagnant water of the Assassin’s Heart Restored by the Innocence of Children trope, which gets trotted out every so often (previous offender: Proud Mary with Taraji P. Henson). He’s credible as a broken man, bulky verging on flabby, who has some large and clear holes in his humanity. All Joe has left is a kind of chivalry, which ironically involves thinking of females young and old as frail creatures needing a guardian — baby birds protected from wolves by another wolf. I’m pretty sure Lynne Ramsay, as a woman, is critiquing this notion yet, as an artist, is entering into complicity with it the better to swim around in it, understand it, express it.

The story, adapted from a Jonathan Ames novella, involves a conspiracy reaching from the gutter to the senate; if handled another way it could play as an untold Sin City story, with Joe as yet another violent white knight turning human dragons into inky smears on tenement floors. Put another way, You Were Never Really Here is what Sin City might have been if an artist, not just an entertainer, had gotten her hands on it (not necessarily better or worse, I should add, just radically different). Both treatments of the essence of the story wind back to the bitter black heart of noir, though this film is so stripped down Joe doesn’t even have a dame — romantically, anyway — to throw it all over for; the closest thing he has is Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), the teenager he has to rescue from the dragon.

Ramsay’s images spark the damnedest connections. A close-up of a woman’s bare soles reminded me of “If her horny feet protrude, they come/To show how cold she is, and dumb.” From there I wondered if Joe was the Emperor of Ice-Cream himself, bringer of death, master of the impermanent. Meanwhile, the emotional import of the scene — and it’s supposed to be a big one — passed me right by. You Were Never Really Here is a riff on a theme, a playpen for the mind and senses, but it likely won’t engage anyone’s heart — Nina is such a flat-affect blank there’s no rapport between her and her savior. But then that could be intentional as well, and thematically appropriate. It’s terrible that it takes artists like Lynne Ramsay so long between getting funding for projects — this is her first film since We Need to Talk About Kevin seven years ago, after leaving Jane Got a Gun in 2013 — because we could use a lot more movies like hers that tickle areas of our brains that usually aren’t touched.

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