Into the cold
Joaquin Phoenix weathers the brutal psychic weather of New York’s underbelly
In You Were Never Really Here, a convulsive mix of film noir and psychodrama, Joaquin Phoenix plays Joe, an emotionally damaged loner and ex-soldier who now serves as a kind of freelance assassin and strong-arm “fixer.” And in this new film by Lynne Ramsay (Morvern Callar, We Need to Talk About Kevin), Joe finds himself assigned the task of retrieving the young “runaway” daughter of a prominent politician and doing so without getting any official law enforcement involved.
The trail he follows leads into some murky sectors of the New York underworld, including the backstreets of child prostitution, and from there into a morass of political and moral corruption. Not too surprisingly, there’s violence aplenty in this fast-moving 90-minute tale, and yet all but a few furious moments of You Were Never Really Here are deeply invested in other matters—human character (the emotional turmoil of Joe, in particular, but of others as well), and contemporary society (especially the psychic weather of an urban industrialized world whipsawed by endless warring “at home and abroad”).
Joe has multiple brief encounters with several more or less generic dispensers of violence and evil, but the only other characters who matter to him (and hence to us) are his mother (an excellent Judith Roberts) and the politician’s daughter Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov). With his mother, he shares a relationship that is at once warm, tender and distinctly troubled. With the mildly enigmatic Nina, he finds an eerie sort of kindred spirit (via memories of his own brutalized childhood, in part) and a brief chance to try his hand at being a father figure—albeit amid the damage and wreckage attributed to several of the story’s failed fathers.
As such, You Were Never Really Here is often powerful and compelling, but not entirely convincing, particularly with its ostensibly “topical” aspects. But what really carries the film, for me, are its exceptional achievements in creating and evoking the sustained disturbances of that “psychic weather.” Weird pacing and multi-leveled editing accomplish part of that, but there’s a very special brilliance in the metallic clamor, percussive rhythms, clashing levels, and dead stops of this film’s soundtracks (designed by Paul Davies, with eclectic musical contributions by Jonny Greenwood).
At the finish, the more conventional bits of the film may not add up to much. But the enigmatic experience it embodies may give us an extraordinarily clear taste of what life feels like in our current and frantic historical moment, or would were we not so routinely benumbed by it.