Joe, wake up. It's a beautiful day.

You Were Never Really Here ( 2017 )

★★★1/2   |   Aug. 25, 2018

You were never really here is an adaptation of a short story by Jonathan Ames directed by Lynne Ramsay in her fourth full feature. Joaquin Phoenix stars as a troubled war veteran, Joe, who makes a living rescuing trafficked girls. This summary likely has a familiar ring to it. We've seen it before, notably in Taxi Driver. The success of the movie then rests on what the director and star can bring to the tale.

Joe is a shell of a man, tortured by an abusive childhood and a violent military past. He leads a clandestine existence with constant flashbacks that define and limit his existence. He fantasises constantly about ending his suffering. His elderly mother, who he cares for, may be be all that keeps him alive. He can be brutal, and is often asked to be. His weapon of choice is a hammer. When we join him, he is assigned to save a Senator's daughter, and given a location. It takes him mere minutes to make his way in, savagely dispatch all those who stand in his way, and rescue the girl. However, in the aftermath, his carefully constructed world begins to rapidly crumble around him, and he must find a way to survive against the odds.

It is a dark tale, and realised by Ramsey in a minimalist and stylish way. A bearded, stocky Joaquin Phoenix is menacingly brilliant in the lead role. Ramsey remarked at some stage that she saw the devil in him during filming, and it's unlikely the audience will fail to see it as well. This isn't a thriller, but a tale of Joe's personal hell. All that's happening around him, well, it had to happen at some stage. This is the life he chose for himself. It's an accomplished and stylish movie, that expertly balances the violence of Joe's world with tenderness, both for his mother and for the young girl Nina. Her own tortured journey means she likely understands him better than anyone else could. Despite the short time they spend together on screen, she acts as a ray of light for him, and brings him back from the brink. As she tells him in one of his darkest moments, "Wake up. It's a beautiful day".

At times, the movie does feel a bit uneven. There is the backdrop of a more complicated conspiracy as Joe is not fighting traffickers but secret service agents and police. This isn't really developed, which makes sense in a tale such as this, but then it begs the question of why it's introduced at all. The flashbacks feel a little random, and fail somewhat to stitch together the history of Joe's trauma, or paint a coherent picture of his state of mind. In general though, backed by the presence of the leading man, it is a short and violent, yet emotionally powerful tale told by filmmaker on the top of her game.

Directed by
Lynne Ramsay
Starring
Joaquin Phoenix
Ekaterina Samsonov
Alex Manette
John Doman
Judith Roberts
Runtime: 89 minutes
You Were Never Really Here (2017) on IMDb