I think You Were Never Really Here kinda holds up even better on the rewatch. Not to say that the first time viewing is bad in any way, but a mid-production budget cut the necessitated the excision of some fifteen pages of screenplay means that the sense of this adaptation is pushed within an inch of its life. There’s a late game revelation of the real villain of the piece that comes out sorta clunkily, split between some murmured exposition and an incredibly manipulative edit that the film has to then snap freeze for five minutes to allow some tone drama to play out.
Aside from that though the whole thing feels complete, following this contract killer/kidnap victim rescuer on a mission that he’s constantly half a step behind on. There’s hardly a frantic rushed beat in the thing. Lynne Ramsay and her editor Joe Bini build up a collected rhythm to their action beats, they track Joaquin Phoenix’s hitman through his procedural work unobtrusively. Even when everything is going to shit around him the frame allows the character a quiet dignity in his failures.
Joe, the hitman, does not feel like a broken figure. I doubt he’d let himself be described that way. He lives with and casually cares for his mother and her declining health. He is addicted to prescription medication, but judging by the scars that cover his body is probably in enough pain to warrant it. He seems to be haunted by his past, yet it’s not the things he did that he regrets, it’s the things that he was unable to prevent. He has this preoccupation with self harm, seems to be confronting his own suicidal ideation; but he has a use and is too concerned by what it would mean to make himself useless.
This last bit’s more my read on a character who purposefully choose not to give nobody too much. He feels like this battered wellspring of understanding and empathy, under the dirty clothes and hulking frame and unkempt beard he finds himself unable to distance himself from a world that is regularly too painful to bear. There’s this wordless moment he shares with a woman on the El which has stuck with me since that first viewing last year, two people whose pain is unseen sharing a brief moment of connection.
You don’t see the conclusion to the woman’s story. You get a sense of the way it might have progressed but the film ultimately ain’t about her. It adopts this structure where it starts right at the finish of job and follows to the conclusion of the next. So we never get that hook, we’re confronted with these actions we don’t quite understand leading into ten minutes of domestic drama. By the time he starts preparing for his next job Ramsay forces us to work backwards, we’ll know his plan through its construction because we know to where it will inevitably lead.
To pause on the domestic drama for a moment, Judith Roberts is the mother who is wonderful in the part. Spiky and abrasive in her need but at the same time she can operate the character with this strikingly pitiably that forces you into her space. There’s a small scene in a bathroom that encapsulates their relationship. Hell the joint wastes no time from the first moment they share in the house together, it’s almost as shocking as anything else in a way, you rarely see two people on screen display this level of comfort with each other. They’ve a scene of polishing silverware that is totally choice.
I realise when talking about Joe earlier I didn’t mention that Phoenix is fucking awesome, felt that went without saying but there it is, just in case.
After we take the job there’s an extensive sequence of preparation, but like very little of this is physical. We see this man struggle with the thing that he is about to do. Mentally prepare himself. You know, this sequence itself takes far longer than the action beat that it is leading up to. The sequence is more fraught, more visceral and uncomfortable than any of the violence that the dude gives or takes over the running time.
The film chooses to obscure its violence. We mostly witness the aftermath of it, it’s fitting in a way. That’s what’s left for the world, it’s the corpses that we’re gonna have to live with, not the people that they used to be. And while our hero confronts these spaces with a ball peen hammer the contradictions that his figure represents come bleeding out of his victims. The edit is striking in these moments, we’ll often cut to something completely blank.
Take the first proper raid that he goes on. We witness it as if from security cameras placed around the property, the edit favours the spaces as much as the character. The limited perspective of each viewpoint gives us no indication as to the compound’s geography and the deemphasisation of the personal means that these hallways are not granted perspective by the character. We’ll see him suddenly appear in one as if a ghost, and maybe he’ll be beating someone to death or maybe he’ll just be there, walking.
By the end we don’t even see that anymore, the audience flag further and further behind. Soon we’ll stop seeing the victims at all, eventually we’ll only see places where Joe has been.
The film remains electric, every choice ramping up this tension that just drips off of a perfect (and eminently danceable) Johnny Greenwood score. It’s a masterclass, specific and slight though it may be. Watching it feels like a learning experience in how to create characters, how to effortlessly shoot in camera to compose your story and the power of the right sound and edit in the right place.
A lot of people be comparing this to Taxi Driver. I only feel it superficially, I mean, sure there’s a lot to go on. But this here is a film about love and respect, enduring a cruel world and the difficulty of making the right decisions in it. I left the film wanting to give Joe a hug, but I know that if it came to that, he’d be the one offering it to me.
You Were Never Really Here is currently screening in UK cinemas.
Images courtesy of Amazon Studios, Photo credit Alison Cohen Rosa