Joe, the driving character of You Were Never Really Here, is detached. So is the film he is in.
Lynne Ramsay’s fourth directorial feature is an unconventional take on the male assassin action movie like John Wick, The Bourne Identity or Casino Royale. Joaquin Phoenix plays Joe, a killer with a ball-peen hammer, mysterious marks and an unexplained past.
There is a distinctly chosen simplicity to the story. His quest is to save a senator’s kidnapped daughter.
Ramsay makes a clear choice to separate the film from definitive histories or characterizations. Her film leaves much to the imagination, an intent she has stated openly.
In an interview with weekly Toronto publication NOW, Ramsay said, “this was always an exercise in less-is-more, and trusting the audience. I think audiences are pretty sophisticated, especially these days, so it became really a character study, and I was hoping that people would enter Joe’s world: see the pieces and join the dots.”
There is an emotional detachment and there is a removal of action as well. Memories and moments of people being choked by plastic bags are used, but seemingly for coping instead of being for violence. One character’s death is briefly observed and then seemingly ignored; the corpse simply sits.
At times, the film resembles Jean-Luc Godard’s A Woman Is a Woman, a musical that is mostly without music, where the buildups into the potential of a song are more heavily emphasized than any music.
One particular note in Ramsay’s film is the sequence of climactic action, where Joe walks into a house to find there is no action to be had. He passes by the knocked-out bodies.
Joe grapples for some sort of relevance throughout the film, and that may be why he was never really anywhere. The title of the film is mouthed to him by a cab driver through a mirror.
Some fans have pointed out that the character of Indiana Jones was unnecessary to the plot of the film Raiders of the Lost Ark. At times, it feels similar, as if Joe has no impact on events. Even his backstory, screaming into the film and invading the narrative, is never directly addressed. But at times where Joe does feel present, he often just makes things worse.
There is some aspect of deconstruction at play, reconsidering the validity of the hitman character. Political entanglements and personal frustrations happen. Connections are traceable and when one person gets involved, so do all of their loved ones and accomplices as collateral damage.
He is not inherently brave, clever or the right person to follow. Ramsay confronts the deification of characters with the willingness to kill and the ability to not become dead.
With a score by Jonny Greenwood that resembles his work on There Will Be Blood, Joe is presented as a fractured character, and the film supports this mild element of characterization.
There is something off about him, as he inexplicably tears a page out of the book he reads in one moment or removes his shirt out of sheer consternation or distress in another. It is unclear why he holds hands with a man he just shot or why he puts his head in plastic bags. Still, there are the dots of discordant tones surrounding Phoenix’s inscrutable performance that Greenwood composed in conjunction with those Ramsay left to connect.
The trouble is with the distance of the dots. The story is given room to breathe, but there is no lack of air in Ramsay’s film. Events take time and a small piece of storytelling is spread out thinly across 89 minutes that feel even longer than they truly are. You Were Never Really Here is detached and has difficulty pulling itself back together.
The film leaves a lot open to the viewers’ interpretation without much decisiveness for itself.
Still, it is a film with beautiful visuals, a disorienting score and, at times, gentle character work. Underwater moments come with poignancy and memorable shimmer.
The score plays around now and again, teasing the expectations of what sound should accompany the brooding hitman and avoiding it in the manner that resembles A Woman is a Woman, though You Were Never Really Here still does use music as part of its redirection.
The interactions between Joe and his mother hint at something more concrete than the rest of the film is willing to offer, and the kindness is a welcome inclusion.
You Were Never Really Here is a fine film, but its pervasive indecisiveness hurts it. Likely, there is more to be gleaned from repeated viewings, but the prospect of what is hidden beneath the surface is not enough.
Ramsay holds her cards close to her chest and never quite chooses to reveal them.
Instead, it is up to the viewer to be swept along and hope that they will pick up enough to be satisfied by the end.
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