The weapon of choice for Joe, the hitman protagonist in Lynne Ramsay’s “You Were Never Really Here,” is a hammer. Over the course of the film’s 90-minute run time, that simple choice is probably the most effective bit of characterisation and meta-criticism. If you were to pause and ponder on the oddity of the choice – messy, impractical, inelegant, bloody – you would be right, because even though the film is low on over-analysis, all those aspects of a hammer as a tool for murder sum up the essentiality of “You Were Never Really Here” and the taciturn man at the centre of it. And, significantly, the film too. This is a film that depends on its ability to bludgeon the audience, and so when the credits began to roll at the end, I knew that no matter how much I liked the film, Ramsay had realised her intention. This movie wants to make you uncomfortable, and it is never subtle about this.
The very first shot of the movie is of a man seemingly being suffocated by a plastic bag. This man is Joaquin Phoenix’s Joe, and the action is self-inflicted. He’s not committing suicide. Not really. This sequence, of his self-suffocating, is repeated consistently throughout the film. It’s an important entry point to the mental state of this man. He’s a retired military veteran and clearly experiencing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. But the film does not have an interest in Joe as an individual person. It doesn’t need to. He’s a loner with no attachments beyond his aging mother. His “job,” as a sort of hired hand for rescuing kidnapped girls, seems borne less out of any intrinsic heroic aspirations, and more out of a social malaise that the film lays on thick. It’s like his hammer. Joe wants to get messy. The film suggests, excellently, that is with the proximity to violence that Joe is able to most effectively find human contact outside of his aging mother. It’s not a novel idea in film, but the way it is deployed feels unique. Less than a minute into the film, when Ramsay presents us with our first shot of that hammer, she is preparing us for the base level of violence to come.
It’s still not half way into the year, but it’s hard to imagine any film topping the disconsolate mood of “You Were Never Really Here.” On the surface, this sort of indie drama does not announce itself as a technical marvel but the sound, editing and photography here is working in individual and communal fashion to create an altogether disorienting, and – honestly unpleasant – experience. And, it’s one I recommend all the same.
An important part of that experience is that “You Were Never Really Here” feels about 30 minutes longer than it is. Usually when we think of good films, the argument is always that the better the film, the shorter it feels. But the intent in Ramsay’s method is different. The film relies on being deliberate, exhausting and overpowering. It’s that hammer symbolism again; the film wants to bludgeon us. And I keep skirting around the phrase “good film” because such adjectives seem to work against the movie. It’s not especially pleasant, but it is incredibly effective at compelling the audience, even when it deliberately avoids conventional narrative strategies. Joe’s mundane days as a murderer are upended when one job goes terribly wrong, like jobs always do in films like these. The whos or the whys of the job’s derailment are inessential, and the way film explains its plot-points are strangely its least effective parts. The film is most effective in moments which negate logic and reality, avoiding the cerebral for a heady sensuality that’s both beguiling and discomfiting.
This is not a film of story or words, but one that’s driven by images. There are three that are seared into my head. The opening shot, a mid-film shot of Joe with a face full of blood, and a later one of him submerged in water. The film is very much style over substance, but style is sometimes all you need to make an effective movie. Ramsay has some interesting things to say about toxic masculinity, and the ways that violence can satiate our desire for closeness, but I find that the film works best when it lets those images speak for themselves. That shot of Joe’s face full of blood works on a sensory level that I can’t quite put into words. It comes moments after the film’s first twist and leads into a “fight” sequence that’s probably my favourite bit of filmmaking of the year. If I’ve focused expressly on the film’s technical aspects, I should point out that none of this works as well without Joaquin Phoenix’s deeply weird performance to anchor it. His Joe is a mostly silent, opaque man and as crafted by Ramsay must create key emotional beats without dialogue. How, for example, does one act on a moment of realisation without dialogue?
The ways that “You Were Never Really Here” uses the absence of dialogue to provide context is a key part of what makes it so provocative and so powerful, and it’s also part of what makes it so difficult to write about it. How exactly do you put into the word the feeling of overwhelming dread that the movie elicits? I’ve said it before of many films here, but it bears repeating, “You Were Never Really Here” does not present itself as entertainment for everyone. I suspect many will not like it if they do see it, but it is an affecting sensory experience, and it feels like essential viewing because of that.
You Were Never Really Here is available to stream on Netflix, Amazon and iTunes