DIANA RINGO/CC BY-SA 4.0
Actor Joaquin Phoenix plays the lead in Lynne Ramsay’s forthcoming film.
Joaquin Phoenix has somehow not become a mainstream name. What I mean by this is that your average movie-goer probably couldn’t pick him out from a collection of headshots. As one of the best actors of his generation, it’s truly a travesty that he hasn’t won an Oscar for any performance despite being nominated three times and winning a Grammy for Best Compilation Soundtrack for Visual Media for Walk the Line.
Phoenix takes on roles that don’t really allow him to be as well known as Matthew McConaughey or even Leonardo DiCaprio. His most recent film, You Were Never Really Here, is another that will not make Joaquin Phoenix into a household name, although he did manage to snag the Best Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival last year.
You Were Never Really Here, the fourth feature-length film by director Lynne Ramsay and her first since We Need to Talk About Kevin, follows Joe (Phoenix), a traumatized combat veteran and former FBI agent who rescues trafficked girls in New York City.
After being contracted by a senator, Joe stumbles upon a government conspiracy and fights to save his own life and that of a young girl, Nina (played by Ekaterina Samsonov).
Joe lives and cares for his mother in his childhood home, and their relationship is a blend of love and compassion as well as disgust and frustration. It’s imperative to the audience that we understand this dynamic; throughout the film we get PTSD-esque flashbacks that show us why Joe behaves as he does and why he is in this position.
Joe’s failure to protect various women in his life has led him to a point that he can’t move past. This is a complex portrait of a man whose aggression is understood to be the result of the trauma he witnessed as a young man and as an ex-government agent.
It’s an incredible performance from Phoenix, who somehow manages to gain the audience’s sympathy once you find out what his character has gotten himself into, in spite of the destructive aspects of his personality. He is an effective killing machine, yet he also longs for his own death, something which follows him throughout the film.
Unfortunately, Phoenix’s performance alone can’t elevate a film that is the very definition of paint-by-the-numbers-esque movie. We’ve seen this all before; it’s predictable. A relatively quiet, troubled man has to save a young girl from a trafficking ring.
In a lot of ways, You Were Never Really Here feels like a blend of Taken and Drive, just with a lead who has a little more psychological damage. Additionally, the film’s minimal use of exposition and dialogue leaves you perplexed and unsure of what the overarching conspiracy seems to be, leaving a major plot element never fully explained.
Perhaps that’s because Ramsay wants us to focus on the psychological trauma that Joe suffers, not the overarching plot — after all how much can one man do to defeat everyone involved in a human trafficking ring?
There are tender moments that Ramsay creates between Joe and the other characters he encounters, all serving as attempts for Joe to do the opposite of what he is accustomed to. At times it works, but at others it feels a bit heavy handed.
You Were Never Really Here isn’t bad, but, ultimately, it isn’t all that great either. The familiarity of not only its plot but also how it is executed leaves it lacking in originality.
Phoenix is fantastic as the traumatized Joe, and Jonny Greenwood’s score is all kinds of good — it gives the film a sense of chaos that helps you really buy into Joe’s flashbacks. Yet when the plot fully does get going and you begin to get drawn in, an emotionally draining sequence leaves you feeling less engaged.
Lynne Ramsay gives us a brutal film that attempts to show us the consequences that traumatic events can have on someone; however, the film’s cookie-cutter plot leaves us wanting more.
You Were Never Really Here opens on April 20 at the Charles Theatre.