Director: Lynne Ramsay
Writers: Lynne Ramsay (screenplay by), Jonathan Ames (based on the book by)
Stars: Joaquin Phoenix, Judith Roberts, Ekaterina Samsonov
There have been many films in the past which depicted mental illness with the soft-handed tetchiness that some say it requires. But few films have showed the fractured mind, the bruised psyche, the stolid and often frightening countenance of genuine mental turmoil. LynneRamsey’s new film achieves this feat with an ease that almost betrays its’ subject matter. How can a movie project such a tortured life while almost making it look incidental?
The film shows Joe, (Joaquin Phoenix) a scarred and scraggly man who lives at home with his sick mother (Judith Roberts). Joe scrubs the bathroom floor after his mother uses the shower. He switches off the television when she falls asleep in front of it (watching Psycho, no less). They polish and organise the cutlery in the kitchen while singing old songs from the radio. It all seems quite charming and sweet, but when Joe is away on business, he can’t distract himself from the ugly past that lingers in his mind.
Joe travels around the country as a hired child rescuer, liaising with his handler, McCleary (John Doman). After completing yet another rough job, Joe is hired to recover the missing daughter of a New York senator. He sets about the task habitually, purchasing a new hammer, his trusted weapon of choice and skulking about dark avenues, hunched behind the wheel of a car, knowing just where to look and how to act. In one of his greatest performances, (and there are many to choose from) Phoenix plays Joe as a man possessed by the grim existence on which his life has played out. There are perfectly cut flashbacks to a soldier strewn landscape and the desolation of war. In other scenes we see a young Joe cowering in the closet of his bedroom, hiding from his father’s rage and fists.
Phoenix has the unique qualities of the great method actors such a Brando and James Dean. Watching his films is like stepping onto a rollercoaster while blindfolded; anything can happen but you know it will be emotional and thrilling. Joe is a man who through his work has just about found a place where he can live; that place is the brink of death with a only glimmer of salvation in sight. The children he rescues seem to save him as much as he saves them. He couldn’t salvage his own innocence and he must destroy those who seek to snatch it from other innocent children. His hammer-wielding skills are not shown to be graceful but instead rabid and explosive, the sparks from the broken fuses of his personality. The young girl, Nina is played by Ekaterina Samsonov who brings a doe-eyed innocence to a grimy and demanding role. Her short blond hair covers a face half-masked by shock and terror.
You Were Never Really Here was Lynne Ramsey’s first film since 2011 when she directed We Need To Talk About Kevin, which examines the nature/nurture components of sociopathy through the relationship of a mother and her callous son. Much like that film, Ramsey shows her adept visual skills and smart interpretations of diseased and isolated minds. Some of the scenes in this film are edited to reflect Joe’s temperamental personality and distant demeanour. In one particular scene where Joe wrestles with a crooked cop in a motel room, Ramsey creates a shattered affect with the mise–en-scene, and allows the audience to see the world through Joe’s eyes albeit for a few brief moments. As frightening as this sounds, you can’t ask much more from a director. I was wincing in my chair during such scenes, wanting no part in the steady destruction that Joe wrecks on those who impart their will on his quest.
There are also moments of tenderness and quietude where Joe resigns himself to the depths his soul has withered to but despite this he decides to continue on his journey. I will not reveal the details of these scenes or the films tense and nightmarish climax. What is left, however, as the credits role is an incontrovertible diktat on violence. We see how a chaotic environment does not make an animal of man but rather awakens the sleeping beast that exists within all of us. Some are forced by circumstance to unleash that animal while others bear witness to the chaos that is left behind. As tortured as Joe’s existence is, we ought to be glad he has guided his animal on the path of goodness because it might just be a more dangerous animal in another person’s hands.