never really here review joaquin phoenix judith robertsYear: 2018
Director(s): Lynne Ramsay
Writer(s): Lynne Ramsay, Jonathan Ames
Region of Origin: UK, France, USA

Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Rating: R
Digital, Color, 90 mins

Synopsis: A traumatized veteran tracks down missing girls. His latest job may lead to his undoing. (Source)

No one captures raw, intangible emotion like director Lynne Ramsay. Ramsay’s films aren’t so much clearly defined narratives as they are evocative waking dreams. Adapted from Jonathan Ames’ novel, You Were Never Really Here is pure anger, rage and trauma, at twenty-four frames per second. Replete with a brisk runtime, the film drops us into the middle of an unspeakable nightmare, and with a character armed solely with a hammer and his repressed feelings. On its most digestible level, the film acts like an abstract vengeance thriller, but one focused on the psychological cost of violence rather than twisty plot conventions or tropes. Lead by Joaquin Phoenix’s blistering performance, Ramsay illustrates how violence festers, consumes and manifests in ways that are wholly unforgettable.

The story centers around around Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), who could, on surface pass as anyone. He keeps to himself and takes care of his elderly mother, but is also a hired gun who thrives in a horrific, unseen world. Running from a dark past, Joe channels all that he is into his job, which consists of tracking down abductees and captors in the underage sex trafficking underworld. His latest assignment has him searching for the daughter of a famous senator. Of course, nothing is what it seems. Before he can realize the truth, Joe’s thrust into a shadowy conspiracy that threatens to overtake his fragile world. Soon it becomes difficult to determine which is worse, the anonymous pursuers closing in on him, or his own personal demons.

Channeling primal emotion into visual poetry, Ramsay’s film is one that exists within the moment. Rather than being spoon-fed, we find ourselves grasping for the bigger picture. We’re right there with Joe as he attempts to solve the labyrinthian puzzle in front of him. Unchained from overt clarity, Ramsay focuses on the space between thought and action, how one leads to another. Since Ramsay’s dealing directly with anger and transgression, Joe’s struggles manifest in some pretty grisly ways. In fact, Ramsay never holds back, unleashing raw, violent catharsis through tension that can be pretty unbearable at times. Along the way, the film questions the psychological toll of Joe’s atonement, dissecting the amount of abuse one person can be exposed to before breaking, and conversely, how someone can take their anguish and fold it back on their aggressor. Still, despite the harrowing savagery on display, the film isn’t without its slivers of grace. Ramsay takes us to hell, but also bridges the gap between desperation and hope in ways we’d never see coming.

never really here joaquin phoenix Ekaterina SamsonovWith its minimalist structure, Joaquin Phoenix’s performance is almost exclusively the cornerstone of Ramsay’s efforts. Phoenix puts everything into Joe’s tormented psyche, revealing a fractured, crumbling mind to mirror his scarred, hulking body. Phoenix’s character is a perfect synergy of mental instability and physical retaliation. Joe manifests fleeting thoughts which bubble to the surface and explode at the flick of a switch. It’s truly something to behold, and another impeccable performance from an unparalleled artist. On the side with minor, but pivotal roles, Judith Roberts is haunting as Joe’s deteriorating mother, while Ekaterina Samsonov compliments Phoenix with an uncanny kindred spirit.

Whereas similar films would shy away from ugliness or diminish their narrative to black-and-white archetypes, Ramsay renders a complex portrait of abuse, grief and survival at all costs. This is a full-bore sensory experience that’s bound to bring viewers to their knees. It’s fast and loose, allowing the film’s implications to be amplified and felt on a visceral level. With Ramsay’s surreal emphasis on psychological strain, the film dives into a world we don’t want to see, yet can’t turn away from. Despite being hammered with cinematic aggression, we can’t help but reel from the blinding emotional honesty. As Ramsay hurtles toward an unpredictable conclusion, fleeting glimpses of hope shine amidst the carnage and chaos.

SG