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REVIEW YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE Brutal Masterpiece Joaquin Phoenix Downright Chilling

Issued: 2018-03-26

An exhilarating case of a phenomenal actor and masterful director working in complete and utter sync, You Were Never Really Here—a team-up between Joaquin Phoenix and Scottish auteur Lynne Ramsay (We Need to Talk About Kevin)—is a rugged, wrenching genre film to be treasured.

The story of a military vet who supports himself and the elderly mother with whom he lives by tracking down missing children for mysterious clients, it’s a grim, tortured affair, one that steeps itself in the psychology of its damaged protagonist and, in doing so, continues Ramsay’s career-long formal and thematic preoccupations. It’s also the most intense movie you’re likely to see this year—a harrowing portrait of pain, psychosis, and the futility of using violence to purge one’s inner demons. Think of it as a Taxi Driver for the 21st century.

An adaptation of Jonathan Ames’ 2013 short story, You Were Never Really Here finds Ramsay once again revisiting subjects near and dear to her heart: traumatized kids, the desire to heal still-raw wounds, and the inescapable burden of sorrow and guilt. Its focus is Joe (Phoenix), a man whose agony is apparent from his first on-screen appearance—in a close-up of his face gasping for air inside a plastic bag. This auto-asphyxiation situation is self-inflicted and anything but erotic, and it’s followed by tantalizing glimpses of his hands burning a young girl’s photograph in a trash can (and an otherwise useless bible snuffing out the flames), and of his body moving through a hotel corridor, his head cut off by the frame, all of it set to the sounds of his whispered thoughts (“Say it!”). Performing his shady duty with efficiency, he’s a fragmented loner, distressed by unknown discord.

When we finally do get a glimpse of Joe, his dark-ringed eyes and long, unkempt, gray-tinged beard underscore that initial impression, as does his furious takedown of an assailant in a back alley during his escape from this motel. A taxi door lets us know Joe is in Cincinnati, but he’s soon back in New York City, visiting his aging mom (Judith Roberts) and then his handler John McCleary (The Wire’s John Doman), who gives him a new assignment: recover Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), the thirteen-year-old daughter of Senator Albert Votto (Alex Manette). Making matters somewhat easier, the whereabouts of habitual runaway Nina aren’t a secret: she’s been kidnapped and forced to work at a pedophilic brothel located inside a heavily guarded city brownstone. And according to the vengeful Votto, Joe has been hired because of his reputation for being “brutal.”

An angry recluse intent on rescuing a preyed-upon girl from the bowels of sexual-exploitation Manhattan hell—it’s a traditional set-up, part Scorsese’s aforementioned 1976 classic, part Paul Schrader’s 1979 descent-into-porno-depravity, Hardcore. Yet while You Were Never Really Here employs a familiar narrative spine, Ramsay infuses it with a potency all her own. As is her wont, the director cares little for exposition, conveying everything of value through startling imagery. The sight of Joe sitting in the dark on his mother’s bed as she falls asleep, or of him later gently caressing her curled-toes foot, speaks volumes about his protective instincts and deep compassion. And jarring, out-of-the-blue cuts to flashbacks—of Joe as a young boy, hiding in a closet, sometimes with his head wrapped in a plastic garment bag; and of images of dead mouths and twitching feet from Joe’s military service—impart, in expressionistic blasts, his entire abused-son and PTSD-wracked soldier backstory.

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