The last film to screen in competition at the 70th Festival de Cannes, You Were Never Really Here, is a thriller about a vigilante for hire framed through the visually inspired eyes of a cinematic auteur. The anti-hero, Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), is a lonely and troubled man, but he also appears to find some satisfaction from rescuing teenage girls who have been kidnapped or coerced into underage sex work. The visionary behind this lose adaptation of Jonathan Ames’ short story is Lynne Ramsay, best known for her beloved debut, Ratcatcher, and her divisive last film, We Need To Talk About Kevin. The result is a compelling character study of an emotionally distraught man set in the trappings of a stylistically impressive B-movie that may find Hollywood studio execs giving Ramsay a second look.
Joe lives a somewhat quiet existence. When he’s not traveling the country as a one-man army eliminating whoever is in his way to save the innocent he’s caring for, his elderly mother (Judith Roberts) lives a far less dramatic life in their home on the outskirts of New York City. In regards to his character’s profession, Phoenix’s passionate performance instills a real world legitimacy in Joe, even if the events seem hard to believe. He’s stealthy, but brutal, prefering a hammer over a gun as a weapon of choice. That fact in particular often makes Ramsay’s action sequences feel like a companion piece to Netflix and Marvel Studios’ Daredevil series or Christopher Nolan’s quietly effective Batman Begins. He certainly isn’t a superhero, but Joe handles his business as though he’s about to be one in these action sequences.
We do see snippets of Joe’s backstory in a recurring flashback motif. At one point in his life, he was a U.S. soldier stationed in Iraq or Afghanistan. He later became an FBI agent and participated in a sex-trafficking raid where he discovered a truck full of gassed and unconscious Asian teenage girls. His father clearly abused both him and his mother and he still has nightmares of having to “stand up straight” to not be a “pussy.” These events, and no doubt others, have given him something of a death wish. He leans a bit too close over the edge of the subway platform and toys with suffocating himself with a plastic bag in a note reminiscent to a crucial scene in the third season of The Leftovers. Joe is a troubled man, but he also appears to find some satisfaction from rescuing teenage girls who have been kidnapped or coerced into underage sex work. It’s unclear if he takes any other types of cases.
His latest job is rescuing Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), the 13-year-old daughter of a prominent senator from an upscale Manhattan bordello. Joe canvases and rescues her with ease, but that satisfaction doesn’t last long. Waiting for her father in a non-descript hotel, they see a news report that the senator (Alex Manette) has apparently committed suicide just hours before. They are ambushed in their hotel room with Nina being whisked away and Joe taking down his own assailant. Joe soon discovers that everyone in his life has been killed by whomever he angered by freeing Nina. It’s only thanks to one of the assailants that he learns that the state’s governor (Alessandro Nivola in a thankless role) is the key figure in this child sex ring.
The film builds to a crushing moment of self-realization for Joe. A moment where Phoenix is at his best as he guides Joe through a roller coaster that ends finds him sitting in a ball of emotional rubble. Where does Joe go from here? He has no idea and that stops him dead in his tracks more than any other death-defying assignment he’s taken to this point.
This is the first collaboration between Ramsay and cinematographer Thomas Townend and their pairing brings an authentic realism to the proceedings in a style markedly different than the portrait and color saturated aesthetic that dominated We Need To Talk About Kevin. It’s a welcome change that often culminates in some stunning imagery and helps creates some tension that, despite its subject matter, the film often lacks by design. The movie also benefits from impressive sound design and music provide by Jonny Greenwood, the Radiohead member and longtime collaborator of P.T. Anderson.
Unfortunately, even for a movie that publicly listed at one hour and 35 min (and currently 10 min shorter), Ramsay’s screenplay consistently meanders into moments that don’t have the relevance or emotional impact she thinks they might. In one instance there is a sequence where Joe deliberately and stoically walks his mother’s dead body into a lake. Their descent into the depths is admittedly beautiful, but it’s an empty moment that hasn’t been emotionally earned. And how Ramsay handles the final act is barely – and we mean barely – redeemed by Phoenix’s powerhouse moment. Ramsay falters ultimately here but to watch Phoenix, an actor at the height of his dramatic powers, on screen and under her direction makes You Were Never Really Here something of a must-see.
[Note: Ramsay said publicly that the film is still being edited and dialogue, other scenes, and additional music from Greenwood could be added.]
You Were Never Really Here was co-financed by Amazon Studios and should be released later this year.