You Were Never Really Here

 

            This is one of the art house movies (a winner at Cannes) that pack a gigantic emotional wallop, but few genteel people will want to avail themselves, because it's so grim and dark and grisly and disturbing.

            Director (and screenwriter) Lynne Ramsay shows us an unrelentingly miasmic urban wasteland.   Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) is a dishevelled mess of a middle-aged man, who carries scars both literally and figuratively.  He keeps flashing back to an unhappy childhood, where he seems to be hiding in a closet from his Dad, unable to protect his Mom.  He now lives in a tiny, dark apartment with his elderly mother (Judith Roberts), and she's beginning to lose her grip on reality, but Joe hardly notices, because so is he.  Joe is incredibly gentle with her, taking care of her as he couldn't do as a child.  But then these flashbacks of wartime run through his head.  Yes, PTSD, but more than that, Joe's a loner.  He doesn't seem to have any gainful employment except this one shadowy exchange of currency, in a dirty convenience store in a beaten-down part of town.

            Though the narrative is never completely linear, we soon deduce that Joe's special talent is rescuing young girls who are held by the notorious anonymous sex trafficers.  Joe has no problem waiting patiently in a stakeout for any obscure clue about a missing girl's whereabouts.  Joe also has no problem with the personal violence sometimes associated with his gruesome rescue missions.  And we viewers don't mind the use of force against such evil characters, either, even when we find out that some of them are not only respectable, they're successful politicians, hiding behind security details.  And their hired thugs play dirty.  They go after Joe's mother, to send a message.  Joe nearly loses it, tempted to join his mother “on the other side,” and be done with all the terrible visions filling his head, mostly from bad memories, and all generating fear and fueling estrangement.  But then another image flashes in Joe's consciousness:  the girl he's trying to save.  Her horrific experience may have scarred her like Joe is scarred, but Joe knows that without his help, there's no hope for her.  And so he perseveres in trying to break the clandestine crime ring, by being the avenging ghost:  showing up to wreak havoc, and then disappearing again into the brooding anonymity of ugly urban sprawl.

            Director Ramsay is fond is presenting us with stark images, without the distraction of a lot of dialogue.  A cheap watch runs chromatically in sync with a clicking gas pump.  A gruesome scene of violence is refracted through a broken ceiling mirror.  We see bodies on the floor and Joe standing over them with a ball peen hammer, but we're spared from watching the actual bloody blows.  And yes, Ms. Ramsay also indulges in a little viewer deceit at the end, but it actually relieves us, because rather than end on a note of tragic darkness, she lets in just a little light of day.  As if there might be hope for our flawed, suffering characters.  As if there might be hope for a dystopian, struggling world.

 

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association