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Phoenix rises in You Were Never Really Here

09 March, 2018 — By Dan Carrier

Joaquin Phoenix in You Were Never Really Here

Directed by Lynne Ramsey
Certificate 15

A GIANT of a man, a hulking form pockmarked by the signs of a life where pain has been a frequent companion. His eyes have another register of intensity, offering a window into a damaged soul. We see him for the first time wiping the blood from a hammer in a cheap hotel room, and with such a simple opening image director Lynne Ramsay sets the tone for a stunning piece of cinema.

Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) is a veteran and ex-FBI agent haunted by events in his past. His body is scarred by violence inflicted by others and himself, and his mind carries each memory vividly. He is a damaged person hardly sustained by the pills he pops to ward off the aches caused by his work and the visions in his mind.

Joe is a hitman, specialising in finding people and dealing with them in a manner decided by the person who pays him. It isn’t pretty. He relies on tip-offs and brute force, his favoured weapons a hammer and duct tape.

After meeting Joe and gradually learning something of his back story, the plot becomes murkier when he gets a call from his fixer. He is told to meet a New York politician (Alex Manette), whose daughter Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov) has gone missing. His job is to find her – and do some lasting damage to the people who have taken her away.

We learn she has been kidnapped and is being held in a brothel in Manhattan. For Joe, this is not just any job but a rescue mission, and you sense he has a personal interest due to abuse he suffered as a child. However, it becomes more than saving the girl: a complex conspiracy emerges that is set to leave a bloody trail.

I have just about stopped having regular bad dreams about Ramsay’s 2011 hit We Need To Talk About Kevin – and this is a similarly powerful story, and horribly brutal, too. There are moments that shock – but all done in a non-sensational manner.

This is not a Quentin Tarantino film that glorifies violence. Instead, it is cold, horrible – and brilliant. New York is a city with soaked streets and neon lights in puddles, dark alleyways strewn with rubbish, diners with chipped Formica tables and offices with frosted glass windows that could come directly from the pages of a Raymond Chandler novel. It looks as seedy and bankrupt as the characters who inhabit it.

And for a film that centres so firmly on the lead, Phoenix is superb, carrying himself like a caged, wounded animal whose response to the aggression he sees around him is to lash back.


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