Joaquin Phoenix is a 21st century Travis Bickle in You Were Never Really Here

In the first act of Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here, there’s an extended sequence of Joaquin Phoenix as Joe, just sitting on his bed. Ramsay’s obsession with the sensuality of texture comes to the forefront, her camera focusing in on the thick strands of his greasy shoulder-length hair held together in a ponytail tuff. On his shoulder, he strains to rest a bag of frozen veggies. As our focus expands, we take stock of his clammy, blotchy skin covered in jagged scars. Who’s this man?

In adapting Jonathan Ames’ novella of the same name, Ramsay stripped it to its core. The film is focused on the for-hire work of Joe, an ex-FBI agent and combat vet who saves young women from sex trafficking. When he’s asked to retrieve a young woman on behalf of a United States senator, his life is thrown into tumult. With many similarities to Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, Joe differs from Travis Bickle in how he has formalized his need for redemption as a business, but also in the fact that he cares for his elderly mother in their small home.

Ramsay’s film does not deal with specifics and so much of the universe remains vague. While the film often feels horrifying in its graphic violence, much of it takes place off-screen. Nearly everything you need to know about who Joe is can be ascertained by the long shot I’ve described above. Like Ramsay’s film, it’s revealing in a way only a body be.

When You Were Never Really Here was initially presented in an unfinished form at the Cannes film festival in 2017, the film was longer and more fleshed out. More focus was put on flashback sequences, which gives us insight into Joe’s PTSD. Flashes of Joe’s childhood are especially troubling, as he puts a bag over his head to deal with the violence in his childhood home. An incident with his parents remains vague enough to be troubling, its insinuations far more perturbing than anything we might have seen.

In a recent interview with Film Comment, Ramsay explains that she never intended those sequences to be a large part of the film. In its final version, dismantled and fractured, these memories are integrated like “like shards of glass in his head.”

Ramsay’s filmmaking style relies heavily on the subjectivity of her characters and we experience the world through their perspectives. This emerges in the fractured montage style but also in the sensuality of the environment. Her cinema is focused on the five senses. Sound, in particular, creates a sensory overload that mirrors the white noise that haunts Joe’s thoughts. Beyond that, though, her haptic gaze (touching through sight) means that her films have the quality of feeling like an extension of the audience’s body. Even at just 90 minutes, the film is an overwhelming physical experience — it’s exhausting.

In the spirit of an old-school, grungy genre picture, there remains that hint of misanthropy that runs through Ramsay’s film that can be difficult to reckon with. Joe is not a bad person, in the sense that he believes child sex trafficking is wrong and that he cares for his mother, but his capacity for unpredictable violence also puts him in direct conflict with a functioning society. As woven together by Ramsay, though, he’s also a product of a society corrupted by false moralities and state-perpetuated violence. The film’s villains are not criminals in the streets but agents of the state. While Joe is a product of this cycle of abuse, Ramsay offers very little hope that it can ever be broken. It’s not so much that she’s wrong, but the sheer hopelessness of her conclusion is draining and perhaps a little facile. ■

You Were Never Really Here opens in theatres on Friday, April 20. Watch the trailer here:

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