You Were Never Really Here (2017)
Dir: Lynne Ramsay; Joaquin Phoenix, Ekaterina Samsonov
[3 out of 4 stars]
Lynne Ramsay’s “You Were Never Really Here” (2018) doesn’t make it easy for the viewer, giving us little in the way of dialogue or narrative explanation and instead dropping us into this world and the mind of a hit man, leaving us to puzzle through the sounds and colors that she throws at us. Some situations are easy to explain: the opening sequence shows a man wiping blood off a ball-peen hammer (his weapon of choice) while a gold necklace lays nearby. The viewer can deduce what occurred. But other details are more difficult to parse through; why does an incessant, metallic thumping invade at one point and then suddenly stop? Ramsay situates us in the mind of her protagonist (a hit man named Joe, played by Joaquin Phoenix), so the thumping sound we encounter is a reflection of his experiences as if through his view.
Joe is an ex-FBI military vet who suffers flashbacks from both his time at war and his abusive childhood, which often lead to suicidal thoughts. He now works as a hit man specializing in retrieving young girls from sex trafficking rings. Joe lives in New York City, cares for his elderly mother (Judith Anna Roberts), and is the kind of person to whom one must apologize for just seeing him if he doesn’t want to be seen. His boss John (John Doman) soon brings him a new case: state senator Albert Votto (Alex Manette), whose daughter Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov) has been kidnapped. Of course, the rescue does not go as planned, but most intriguing is the amount of time that Ramsay spends on Joe himself, not on his job. She is much more interested in psychology and tone than she is about conveying a traditional narrative, and the film is low on conventional plot and dialogue.
We are so deeply entrenched in Joe’s perspective that he often isn’t even in the frame. We don’t need to see him to feel his presence or mood. During one montage of shots depicting the cityscape, we spend shot after shot looking for him in the frame and finally find him, sitting in the lower edge of a shot. He walks into shots, leans back into them, or is visually interrupted by a train passing in front of him. At one point, we hear a voice-over of him talking to someone before he has even knocked on the door of their home. Joe’s perspective is deeply ingrained in this film, whether he visually appears or not. Because this is his story, we experience everything through his eyes.
The filmmaking style is sometimes disorienting as editor Joe Bini cuts quickly from shot to shot without transitions, focusing on tiny details that give us little context into where we are or what is occurring — a hand pumping gas, a girl sitting by a water fountain. His style is fast-paced and high stress; sometimes he shows the gruesome violence, sometimes he doesn’t, passing over it almost nonchalantly. Each shot is exquisitely crafted, visually interesting, and not what you are expecting. It’s the little design decisions that make the difference, like placing a mirror above Joe’s mother’s bed so that we see his face as he tucks her in. In one scene, as Joe conducts one of his brutal rescue missions, his movements throughout the building and attacks on the guards are shown solely through the black and white footage of security cameras. Such an approach keeps viewers visually alert and engaged in each moment of the film, always unsure of what is coming.
Compounding the already hypnotic rhythm of the film is the score, created by Jonny Greenwood. Much of the early part of the film is scored with techno songs with heavy beats, sounds like scraping metal, and names like “Nausea,” “Dark Streets,” and “Downstairs.” These songs introduce us to the brutal side of Joe. In the opening sequence, he lumbers through New York City at night with his hood pulled up, just a hulking shape in the streets. As he sits in the backseat of a cab, bright lights flashing on the window through the rain and Greenwood’s dramatic music pounding in the background, one can’t help but be reminded of Taxi Driver (1976). As the film progresses, Greenwood shifts to more upbeat, almost ridiculously happy songs like “If I Knew You Were Coming” by Eileen Barton, songs that are grossly out of place in such a bleak setting. The layering of peppy, silly songs with visceral violence creates an eerie air. One scene, which showcases interior shots of a beautiful, luxurious mansion while Rosie Hamlin’s “Angel Baby” plays, is reminiscent of The Shining (1980), except here, the violent murderer is not a threat, but a savior.
“You Were Never Really Here” somewhat adheres to the conventional standards of the hit man/slasher genre, from its lone wolf, reticent protagonist to the young girls he frequently saves. Yet, the film is also extremely creative in that it focuses little on plot and much more on crafting the psyche of our hit man, almost a character study. This innovation, unfortunately, falls apart at the conclusion, which fails to break out of the mold. After an hour and a half of fascinating and inventive exploration, the film’s ending just falls flat. However, “You Were Never Really Here” still deserves praise; each of the elements of the film, from its cinematography to its score, combines to create a world, and a protagonist, that is dark, complex, and unexpected.