A Masterpiece, by Lynne Ramsay
In You Were Never Really Here, Lynne Ramsay’s masterpiece thriller based on the Jonathan Ames novel of the same name, Joaquin Phoenix pulls a bullet from his face with a pair of pliers, looks down at the deformed metal and laughs. Ramsay then cuts wide to reveal a hard-breathing Phoenix in a rainy alleyway wrapping up the self-surgery as a hulking, stray dog hustles away from the bloody killer, wanting nothing to do him.
“He was there, transforming himself physically in front of my eyes,” Ramsay told Film4. “He was becoming this beast.”
Joaquin Phoenix is arguably Hollywood’s most talented actor. He is a highly-selective artist, a very curious, open-minded man. He has said that he likes to explore ideas and receive feedback from different parts of the crew on-set, and interact personally with the director to see where the energy leads him.
For her part, Ramsay describes Phoenix on-set as almost like having a Director of Photography in the actor, in other words, a trusted, highly-valued consult.
“He’s forever questioning things,” Ramsay said. “Which I think is a really beautiful way to be… Often times, new things would come and it felt very creative.”
Phoenix agreed to star in Ramsay’s film when another shoot on his schedule was postponed, and as a result, he was able to start pre-production on You Were Never Really Here early on in the process. Ultimately, his input weighed heavily in the final product.
Ramsay says she wrote for Phoenix to play her lead, “Joe,” in You Were Never Really Here, and although he initially postponed accepting the role because of prior commitments, the fates eventually aligned, and the chemistry between Ramsay and Phoenix was given life, producing a thought-provoking piece, an exploration of pain, madness, struggle and hope – perhaps the best film of 2018, when all is said and done.
Joe is a very complicated man with an extremely violent job, he’s a New York-based hitman who specializes in delivering a great deal of pain to his victims. His weapon of choice is a ball-peen hammer and brute force, of which he has plenty. Phoenix clearly worked out for the part, transforming his usually diminutive frame into a mountain of scarred muscle, to complement the snarling grimace he hides behind the thick coat of a scraggly, salt-and-pepper beard. But for all the violence he dishes out during his day job, Joe is equal parts puppy-dog when it comes to his home life, where his elderly mother waits each night for him to return and help her to enjoy her remaining days. The first time we meet Judith Roberts as Joe’s mother, she’s passed out in her Lazy-Boy, mouth agape, glasses still on, pretending to be asleep so she can startle Joe with a jump-scare as soon as he arrives, blanket in tow. The prank goes down as planned and Joe’s mom gets a nice laugh out of it, to which Joe responds with an ear-to-ear grin and a good-natured chuckle of his own.
“Part of what was appealing was the possibilities of exploring something in the character that you don’t typically find in this genre,” Phoenix told Peter Travers of Rolling Stone. “It was an opportunity to turn it on its head in a way. Find the tenderness. Find the humor.”
Living alone with his mother and with no room in his life for acquaintances, Joe is an isolated man who hears voices in his head constantly. He is racked with guilt and PTSD from his days serving in the military, and he is constantly battered emotionally by the memories of his abusive father, who beat his mother and himself so bad that Joe’s suicidal tendencies began before his balls dropped. Ramsay said that part of the appeal of Ames’ novel is the black humor with which the author treats Joe’s suicidal thoughts. As an audience, the memories of his darkened childhood and Joe’s desire to kill himself resonate not as humorous, even in a darkly-comedic way, but rather, as deeply affecting – even though he is a killer, Phoenix and Ramsay capture our hearts with Joe from his first frame, and we root for him every step of the way, which makes the suicidal desires, flashbacks and attempts all the more difficult to stomach. We want Joe to live. We need Joe to live. If for no other reason than he deserves to feel happiness and love. He is a tortured beast, a savage killer, but he was made that way by outside forces beyond his control, not by anything evil within. On the inside, Joe is a gorgeous, selfless, soulful human being, and we want nothing more for him than to experience what it means to be treated selflessly in return.
The Ames book is a quick read, Ramsay said she got through it in about 90 minutes, which is one minute longer than the film’s TRT. The plot moves effortlessly through 90 minutes that end up feeling more like 45, as Joe gets caught up in a basic revenge, counter-revenge plot in which he infiltrates a sex-trafficking operation in New York, killing a number of prominent pedophiles along the way.
The film shines bright spotlight on an issue that affects children and women worldwide, but is barely covered by news-gathering media today: Human trafficking and sexual servitude. The fact that the film takes down public figureheads as closeted pedophiles makes it important. The message is that pedophiles don’t necessarily take the stereotypical form of social outcasts. If the Catholic Church has taught us anything, it’s that even America’s most prominent and trusted social figures can lead dark, double-lives that include the sexual abuse of children.
Joe takes a job from a New York Senator whose 13-year-old daughter, Nina, was kidnapped and taken to a New York loft where she serves as a sexual slave. The Senator has only an address, so Joe stakes out the place and shakes down one of its errand boys for information on where security is stationed within the two-story home. Armed only with knowledge and his hammer, Joe takes down the sex offenders in a brilliantly-designed sequence that uses security camera footage for much of the carnage.
You Were Never Really Here was made briskly, on a tight budget, with no time for reshoots, and Ramsay responded to the pressure quite well. Sometimes with only a half-day to shoot, Ramsay took a conservative approach to the violence in the blocking on set, and in the editing room, which makes this sequence in particular all the better. Too often directors forget that the imagination is far more powerful than CGI. What we don’t see on-screen, we fill in with our minds, and there is no bullshit green-screen installed – it’s all vivid and terrifying up there. Hitchcock used to live by this understanding. What qualifies Ramsay as a filmmaking juggernaut herself – besides the ability to adjust to her circumstances – is her understanding and acceptance that sometimes, less is more. In her highly-violent scenes, Ramsay gives us enough information to understand what is happening, but allows our minds to fill in the blanks. The result is a resounding success. No wonder she offers a Hitchcock shout-out in the opening act.
After Joe rescues Nina, eyes dilated by drugs and mind turned to introspective mush by the sexual abuse, he takes her to a hotel to wait for a call from the Senator. Before the pedophile-police break in and send a bullet into Joe’s face, kidnapping Nina in the process, we are given a chance to once again see Joe’s tender side – moments after slaughtering multiple human beings. He wraps a towel around Nina and dries her head vigorously, rubbing her head lovingly, as if she were a playful puppy. His eyes come alive and he smiles broadly, giving her his real name when she asks for it, rather than hide his identity. Phoenix allows Joe to be vulnerable for us here, even though his mind is twisting and tying in knots.
The child calls out for him as she is whisked away, and after he self-heals with the pliers, he returns home to find his mother shot through the face in her bed upstairs, and two pedophiles searching for him downstairs. Joe ends them both, but one takes a bullet to the abdomen, and it’s going to take a while to bleed out on Joe’s kitchen floor. The moment of realization is ridiculously scary if you’re the bloody pedophile on the floor. Joe asks which one of them shot his mother as his face contorts into some human-form of an enraged demon, but he knows it doesn’t matter what the dying man says. Here, as an audience, we cue the music in our heads and expect the Tarrantino Revenge Porn to ensue post haste, but Ramsay and Phoenix have other plans in mind.
Phoenix finds his way to the floor, belly-up, alongside his victim. As the record player repeats over and over, “It’s just like heaven, being here with you,” Joe peacefully mourns the loss of his mother alongside the bloody man, who begins to sing along with the song. Joe soon joins in, and they sing together quietly. As the man slips beyond consciousness, and death comes for him, he reaches out and offers his hand, and Joe takes it gently, offering his mother’s killer comfort as he slips on through to the other side. It’s a breathtaking moment of cinematic genius, offered by one of film’s up-and-coming superstar directors and an actor who has mastered the art form. Joaquin Phoenix does not act, he simply exists as a character, lost in a time and space that is uniquely his, while a camera quietly rolls nearby, documenting the moment.
The film’s final scene will be argued over at length for some time to come. Ramsay gives us a particularly ambiguous ending, and in so doing, forces the audience to think. Cinema should challenge its audience, and too often in Hollywood today, cinema underestimates its audience. Ramsay does no such thing here. She offers us a sequence that is impossible to watch without thinking about it. We thirst to understand: “Wait. What just happened there? What did I just see? What is the larger meaning? What does, ‘You were never really here,’ mean, exactly?” Thoughts, thoughts, and more thoughts. In too much of cinema today, we are force-fed an ending, even when the ambiguous ending is the best choice. Ramsay makes no such mistake – she opens the door, to our thoughts, our feelings, and our imaginations.
Ramsay is a cinematographer as well as a writer and director – she’s a filmmaker – with a brilliant eye behind the camera. Thomas Townend shot the film and did an incredible job. His close-ups, and the film features many, are works of art, beautifully constructed to tell a story without words.
Ramsay introduces the entire film with three words of spoken dialogue. The opening of the film is a succession of close-ups, each offering more and more information without any narrative exposition. We learn almost everything in this film through Ramsay’s photographs. They tell the story of Joe. Phoenix, meanwhile, exists within a realm of himself as a deeply-rooted introvert, a physical bully who must, as a rule of survival, hide himself from any relationships in the outer world, but is none-the-less a deeply nurturing caregiver, in spite of his deep depression, in his inner world. He is a man of constant conflict. Not only in his line of work, but in his daily-life dichotomy, and within the realm of his tortured psyche, where he battles with his suicidal demons, and harbors hero tendencies, where he alone can defeat evil with righteous justice, and help those in need.
He sees himself in Nina, just as Nina sees herself in him. Throughout the film, Ramsay offers us visual clues with mirrored images, and when the two share scenes together, much of it is spent staring at each other, few words spoken, as if they are looking into a reflection. Ramsay backs the premise when Joe shares similar stares with the Asian-American girls on the sidewalk. He is man of great despair, and they are young, and full of life, unaware that death stands mere inches away. When he stares into their eyes, and they back into his, they see not a reflection, but a monster, she gapes, frozen solid by fear, and he freaks out, seeing the girl he got killed in wartime, as the PTSD rushes in.
The film is simply breathtaking. As with all truly great films, it tells its story through imagery, and great acting. Few films today are this good. No actors like Joaquin Phoenix exist.
I loved it.