I recently lambasted the ugly, unpleasant TRAFFIK for, amongst other things, the way it handled its theme of human trafficking. We encounter a similar version of that evil in YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE, the new effort from director Lynne Ramsay. However, the manner in which human trafficking is handled is night and day. While TRAFFIK decided to wrap the plot in cheese and queasy exploitation, YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE is all studied pauses and weighty portents. But is it any better for its seriousness?

Joaquin Phoenix and Judith Roberts have an epic staring contest in YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE (Courtesy of Amazon Studios)


Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) is war veteran and childhood abuse survivor who clearly is struggling with a pervasive case of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. He seemingly only has two pursuits in his life. The first of these, his more public face, is taking care of his aging mother (Judith Roberts). He supports this aspect as a gun—or hammer, as it was—for hire specializing in child abduction cases.

After completing what seems like a fairly routine job in Cleveland, he returns to New York. Shortly thereafter, a US Senator (Alex Manette) reaches out to Joe through his complicated network. The legislator’s daughter has grown increasingly distant since her mom’s suicide. This time, however, he is sure she isn’t just out partying the days away. This time she has been taken.

Joe takes the job and works it in his competent, almost unemotionally efficient, way. However, there are far more complex forces at work.

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The Writing

Lynne Ramsay’s adaptation of Jonathan Ames’ book of the same name is decidedly sparse. No one talks much in Joe’s world. Only his fixer John McCleary (John Doman)—a chatterbox—and his mom—who speaks a normal amount—say more than a few words at any given time.

What dialogue is there features a nasty black humor streak at times to balance out this the seriousness, as well as occasional self-seriousness. The film also manages to find a genuine emotional reality for Joe in his relationships with his mom and Nina, the Senator’s daughter (Ekaterina Samsonov).

On the other hand, the movie’s break towards conspiracy in the third act feels a bit difficult to swallow. It isn’t that the mastermind figure wouldn’t engage in such behaviors, but the extent to which he does feels false. It involves a secret special home, a fixation of doll houses, and a willingness to risk everything for what is an apparently easy-to-indulge criminal lust. There are powerful people behaving horrifyingly and there is this.

Joaquin Phoenix gives Ekaterina Samsonov a piggyback ride in YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE (Courtesy of Amazon Studios)


One of the first times that we see Joe in full, he emerges from a building’s basement. As he climbs the stairs, head surrounded by the hood of his sweatshirt, beard obscuring most of his face that you could see, he looks like nothing so much as a monk. As the film unfolds we find that this is not entirely inaccurate. Joe lives a monkish existence, largely rejecting life’s pleasures and connections, dedicated to a higher mission. To paraphrase MAN ON FIRE, however, Joe’s religious observance is one of violent rescue, not prayer and acts of charity.

Phoenix clearly bears the weight, physical and psychological, of that devotion on screen. He is big; not shredded like lettuce, but heavy, built to take as much punishment as he gives. His body is a defined by scars, some dating back to childhood. They tell us he is a man who does not shy away from harm, perhaps even courts it.

Of course, the mean silent types are not exactly rare on-screen. Joe gains depth in Phoenix’s rendering from the way he makes it clear that the body is willing, but the mind is breaking. His consistent nodding off, his reactions to his mother’s various trials and tribulations, his inability to be emotionally present with anyone he isn’t seeking to use for information. All of it points to a person who is moving forward only out of habit. He long ago let go of the notion of living for the sake of enjoying life, an echo of the theme implied by the title.

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Casting the Rest of the YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE Call Sheet

This is really Phoenix’s show so most of the other characters just do not register in the same way. There are two whom should still be shouted out though. The first is Mom as rendered by Judith Roberts. She plays her note perfect, finding that balance familiar to anyone with aging relatives. The sense of nostalgia, dread, and irritation she pulls out of Joe—and us as the audience—is very recognizable. We can relate to the frustration of cleaning up after her because her age is leading to errors. Simultaneously, our heart aches and swells at a duet of a long-familiar song. Especially given the resolution of her storyline, it is difficult not to play her as a sainted figure. Roberts finds that harder, smarter path though.

Samsonov’s Nina, at just 14, does an impressive job as well. A lot of younger actors and actresses impress through their ability to give voice to dialogue. Samsonov, however, has almost no lines. Therefore, she has to rely on her expressions and body language to define a character. Most actors would struggle with that. Given that she’s just barely a teenager, her ability to make that work without being muggy is impressive.

Alex Manette faces his dilemma in a scene from YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE (Courtesy of Amazon Studios)


Where YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE really excels is its imagery. Every shot feels intentional, devoted to building the tone. We already discussed above how Joe is depicted on-screen so I won’t belabor that. I will, however, speak to one particular aspect of Joe that wasn’t explored above. Joe himself practically isn’t present. Even though Phoenix invests him with weight, he seems to almost waver in the camera lens. First, there is his self-selected city hermit existence. Next, we witness his ability to stalk through locales while being little noticed despite his size and disposition.

Most interestingly, however, is when Joe sustains what would be, under normal circumstances, a very noticeable wound. We see the blood, the implement, hear him acknowledge it. However, on-screen it is almost never visible as anything more than a bruise. It is as though Joe is so insubstantial, even weapons mostly pass through him.

Interestingly, there is only one moment where he feels wholly full and real and we only see it from a kind of remove. Joe stages a raid on a brothel specializing in young—often very young—women. As we watch his movements through a security camera, he seems real. Ironically, however, it is everyone else who suddenly seems ethereal. Freed girls float down halls in white nightgowns, Victorian ghosts in a modern time. Naked men crumble over at the swing of Joe’s hammer and look for all the world like discarded dummies.

Ramsay renders the locales claustrophobically as well, keeping the camera just below human eye level. Even on the streets of New York, this angle makes Joe’s world feel hemmed in and small, reflecting his own range of focus. I do not recall a single overhead establishing shot of the city, something that is like catnip to the typical director.

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The Sound Design/Music

Music, especially light poppy offerings and old showtunes, are harbringers of doom in the world of YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE. Every song is soon followed by shocking acts of violence or precede the discovery of the dead. What we typically associate with fun or frivolity is subverted in this environment, mirroring the exploitation of childhood as a sort sexual fetish. As a result, everything feels uncomfortable and awkward. We can no longer trust our instincts, our schemas, as one of the least offensive aspects of our real world has been weaponized by the movie.

On the other hand, we have Johnny Greenwood’s clanging discordant score. He cherry-picks elements of the immediate environment and room tone and elevates them. In this way, we enter Joe’s head. Through his PTSD and resulting hyper-vigilance, every sound is important. Every sound indicates possible danger. As a result, the typical noises of New York become an aural assault and Greenwood brings that to life for us.

As a result, the movie literally has us coming and going. Only the silence Joe achieves in his brief dip in a lake offers any relief. We can understand why Joe almost makes the choice he does in that moment because we too feel safe for the first time.

Joaquin Phoenix reclines and abides in a scene from YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE (Courtesy of Amazon Studios)

Striking the Set

As near a work of art as one is likely to find in late April, YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE is a disconcerting bit of phantasmagoria. It sneaks up on the viewer and seizing them, forcing them to bear witness to a broken man’s attempt to find forgiveness through violence, perhaps saving his soul even as it damns his mind. It is not a pleasant sit, but it is a vital one.


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