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Joaquin Phoenix gives a career defining role in 'You Were Never Really Here'

Joaquin Phoenix and Ekaterina Samsonov in Lynne Ramsay's YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE, an Amazon Studios release.

There is nothing particularly boundary-pushing about “You Were Never Really Here,” the newest effort by Scottish director Lynne Ramsay. It is a relatively procedural revenge film chronicling a man with a particular set of skills rescuing a damsel from the clutches of a group of men with sinister intentions (sound familiar?).

However, what makes this feature truly incredible is Ramsay’s willingness to explore the psyche of the anti-hero in lieu of the conventional trappings of the subgenre. The final product is a moving interpretation of what it means to live with crippling post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) is a veteran and ex-federal agent who suffers from profound nightmares and depression as a result of  PTSD. He is a man of few words, and his grimy, urban surroundings throughout the film create a constant sense of darkness and claustrophobia, making it unclear whether he is trapped or if he chooses this sordid environment as a form of flagellant behavior because of his past.

He spends his days caring for his senile mother (Judith Roberts) -- whom he loves unconditionally despite her not making it easy for him -- and spends his nights taking on contracts from parents to rescue girls from pedophiles and sex-traffickers. Nothing is explicitly stated and everything is subtly inferred.

The movie is filled with jarring flashbacks in the form of dreams and post-traumatic episodes that slowly paint a picture of Joe’s background. They expose how Joe has consistently been unable to save people -- or when he tries to help, things go horribly wrong. This theme acts both as a retrospective piecing together of his past and a form of foreshadowing for things to come. Everything from his daily routine of mending hideous wounds and reading books starting with the last page, to his fascination with self-suffocation constructs a portrait of the protagonist without drawing much sympathy.

There is little moral dilemma in “You Were Never Really Here,” however. While Joe’s  interactions with others are always curt and his chosen occupation as a street vigilante positions him on the wrong side of the law, he is unequivocally the “good guy.” Joe has a slew of skeletons in his closet that make unwelcome appearances in vicious bouts of PTSD, but he is using what little he has left to try and set things right.

Akin to John Krasinski's recent film “A Quiet Place,” a majority of the plot is delivered through visual storytelling instead of dialogue. All of the major action sequences occur off-screen, but are no less visceral as the gist of the violence is caught from the perspective of security cameras, which all of Joe’s affluent targets conveniently have. Joe’s weapon of choice: your typical hardware store hammer. Ramsay manages to shield the viewer from these barbaric acts of violence, but she also doesn’t pull any punches. Some of the most stomach-churning scenes in the film capture the bloody aftermath of violence instead of the act itself.

These strange action sequences are consistently anticlimactic, but are also a breath of fresh air from the typical breakneck action sequences in films like “Taken” or “John Wick.” Ramsay will utilize a single shot in some scenes to make the violence seem intimate or will cut between footage from security cameras to make these brutal fights sterile and impersonal -- just another day at the office for Joe.

“You Were Never Really Here” sometimes crosses over into horror as well. Jonny Greenwood’s dissonant score helps with that effect. This, along with his music for last year’s Academy Award-nominated film “Phantom Thread” are proving that the Radiohead guitarist is a formidable composer in his own right. Moments that stand out are the flashbacks to Joe’s childhood, and the deep, demonic voice that overlays the impending violence that unfolds during these sequences.

The film’s expository imagery walks on a tightrope between the literal and the surreal. Much of what is learned about Joe’s past is condensed into dread-soaked vignettes that vanish in the blink of an eye. These glimpses are violent rorschach tests that may leave different impressions on viewers.

Much like the film’s protagonist, there is much more to “You Were Never Really Here” than frightening imagery and brutality. Joe’s past is an albatross around his neck he feels he must bear as a result of his failures. While his choice of work seems to be an attempt to set things right, the job hardly seems fulfilling. It isn’t until Joe comes across Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), a Senator’s daughter caught up in a sex-trafficking ring, that he once again seems to find purpose.

Similar to films like “Taxi Driver” and “Leon: The Professional,” Joe takes on a sense of responsibility that can be called everything but paternal. He persists in Nina’s rescue even after he learns she is a part of a much bigger conspiracy, because she has given him new reason to live after suffering crippling losses throughout his life.

Many things remain unresolved at the end of “You Were Never Really Here,”  including how Joe will deal with the repercussions of the events that end the film. The viewers will see the gravity of the situation once the conspiracy takes hold. None of these things matter, however. Joe is a character fully realized in a way that many filmmakers fail to achieve, but “You Were Never Really Here” is a film that will unfortunately be overlooked (as if it were never here).

Revenge and redemption are the obvious, but not best words to describe “You Were Never Really Here.” It deals more with the intricacies of depression and how it can leave one destitute. The film creates meaning through a jigsaw puzzle of traumatic snapshots into a troubled man’s past, all leading to a light at the end of the tunnel, a way out for Joe that doesn’t involve looking down the barrel of a gun or at the bottom of a pill bottle.

“You Were Never Really Here” grapples with depression in an unconventional, nihilistic way. However, through its vicious and horrific imagery, it condenses its barbaric grime into a heartfelt diamond.

Grade: A

“You Were Never Really Here” opens in Washington, D.C. on Friday, April 13

bermer@theeagleonline.com


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