There were a number of factors that prevented me from rushing out to see You Were Never Really Here on opening night. First was the weather, which is not really an excuse at all if you’re a New Englander like me. The second factor was the review snippet plastered on the poster that referred to the film as “Taxi Driver for a new century.” Do I enjoy Taxi Driver? I do. Do I enjoy “modern updates” to ’70s classics like Westworld, for example? Occasionally, yes, I do. But this kind of explicit tailcoat-riding is either lazy marketing or inadequate criticism or, likely, both. I don’t think I saw Interstellar because people said “it’s 2001 for a new generation!” and I didn’t see Annihilation because people said “it’s 2001 for a new generation!“, but I do know that I enjoyed those movies primarily for how not-2001 they both were.
But this, too, is a weak excuse. Two big preventatives: firstly, in a move most unforgivable and piteously ironic for someone who purports to point out “inadequate criticism” in the first paragraph of this very review, I had never before seen anything directed by Lynne Ramsay. People had gently suggested this oversight as something I should reconcile tout suite. “Start with Ratcatcher,” they said, recommending Ramsay’s feature debut. “Start with We Need to Talk About Kevin,” they said, recommending her 2011 effort. I’m a bit of a completist in this regard, watching one movie by the Coen Brothers and then suddenly finding myself rewatching them all. Maybe my appreciation of You Were Never Really Here would be heightened if I first paid my dues to Ramsay’s previous films, no?
This somewhat-rational fear dovetailed with a somewhat-irrational one, borne of my love of Joaquin Phoenix as an actor. When the pseudo-docu-hoax I’m Still Here came out in 2010, I was as torn as I’ve ever been walking out of a theater. Was that all staged? Real? If staged…why? And if real, shouldn’t we intervene in the downfall of this man instead of making profit off a movie about that downfall? The notion put forth by my homunculus, ever the cynic, upon seeing the trailer for You Were Never Really Here was that it was a sequel to I’m Still Here, with Joaquin playing himself or a fictional-but-only-just version of himself. It’s I’m Still Here for a new generation! If this were somehow true, it would be heavy stuff.
Turns out this is in part what makes You Were Never Really Here such a feat, such a force, such an honest and immersive piece of filmmaking. Ramsay’s approach reminded me at times of the similar approach by David Gordon Green in films like Joe and Manglehorn, wherein a fictional narrative unfolds so convincingly that you’d swear the thing you’re watching was real. Given the stylized nature of the film industry at large today, this was the most refreshing and alluring feature of the film. Doubly refreshing was that, despite the plot similarities, the stylized uptempo flow of Taxi Driver couldn’t be more at odds with the matter-of-fact lens capturing YWNRH. This was all triply refreshing, I suppose, for having never seen Ramsay at work before.
But like those films from David Gordon Green, YWNRH really excels because it has the thematic and symbolic subtext to support cinematography utterly uninterested in showing off. Phoenix plays a guy named Joe, an enforcer-for-hire with zero qualms about violence. But he’s almost playing two characters, and YWNRH pushes this idea forward as the film progresses: there’s Daytime Joe, the guy who quietly takes care of his aging mother, and there’s the Nighttime Joe, the guy who loudly takes care of anyone in his path.
Deft handling of the warring-selves motif isn’t so rare that YWNRH shatters any norms of cinema in the process, but it is somewhat of a revelation to marry this theme to a character suffering from extreme post-traumatic stress. In a sense it’s a more realistic and vastly more challenging version of the 2016 flick Disorder, which only hinted at a few things that find full realization in Ramsay’s film. This is POV PTSD in a DIY style to make your AV senses go WTF. It could be said that both Joes are at war for the heart and soul of the man they inhabit, daily, nightly, taking turns selecting memories from the past and placing them unavoidably in the path ahead. We’re in Joe’s head as he navigates this war, wondering if it will ever stop raging or, maybe, if it’s already been over for years.
Phoenix remains that special breed of actor able to inhabit Joe in a natural way, without any of the work needed to play such a character actually showing on the screen. Which is what YWNRH needs, of course, in order to maintain the sense that Ramsay and Co. just happened to be there when this dude Joe finally cracked. Phoenix is so convincing that he makes you genuinely concerned for his mental state — as a person, a real person, not as this character — and so again I’m Still Here crops up as an unexpected touchpoint. There is an almost identical moment in both films featuring Phoenix slowly submerging himself in a river until he’s gone, ripples on the surface chasing each other out into nothing. It was creepy and poignant in I’m Still Here, but in You Were Never Really Here it’s downright haunting.
There are other things on the list of laudables, most notably the score by Jonny Greenwood. He and Ramsay use a heavy electronic soundtrack the way Nicolas Winding Refn used the same in Bronson and Drive; again, though, it doesn’t feel as overtly in-your-face here. But the heart of this film is in the exploration of character, accomplished through every feasible outlet at Ramsay’s disposal from the cinematography to the thematic writing to the the lead performance from Phoenix. The movie I thought I was about to watch is one that’s a dime-a-dozen, even if it is pitched “for a new generation.” But my expectation was for a film exploring a criminal as a criminal; You Were Never Really Here explores a criminal as a person, and it’s an exploration to which I’m eager to return.