Based on a short story from 2013 by Jonathan Ames, You Were Never Really Here takes you on the skin-crawling, emotionally confronting and violent journey of a hitman as he tracks down a young missing girl.
Hitman Joe is good at what he does; he’s brutal, vigilant and reliable (everything you would want in a hitman). After another successful hit, Joe’s manager informs him of his next case; the teenage daughter of a State Senator has been kidnapped and it’s his job to return her home while also causing serious harm to those who have taken her by order of her father. As Joe tracks down the abducted teenager, things take a turn for the worse and before he knows it his life is turned upside-down as he comes up against a force the like of which he has never confronted before.
Throughout the film, Joe has moments where he is engulfed within traumatic flashbacks of his past. Through these it is clear that he has grown up surrounded by violence with a father who was violently abusive towards his mother, and past jobs that saw him witness the horrors of combat experiences.
Director, Lynne Ramsay, creates a chilling atmosphere similar to that of her previous well-known film, We Need to Talk About Kevin. She doesn’t shy away from brutal violence and in this film places it front and centre, especially when Joe uses his signature weapon, a skull-shattering hammer. Ramsay experiments with various visual presentations of violence, with one particular scene displaying the physical ferocity through the viewpoint of assorted security cameras within a multi-storied town-house.
The film has been described as a 21st century version of Taxi Driver and it’s easy to see why. While some scenes almost directly mimic the shots of the film’s protagonist driving through the streets of New York at night, the overall theme of You Were Never Really Here parallels the 1976 classic with the paedophilic, sexually-driven and violent nature of its antagonists. Both film’s protagonists show men on the very edge of sanity as they take matters into their own hands to defend the vulnerable who are in need of their protection.
Joaquin Phoenix, at this point in his career, can simply do no wrong. He is able to convey the loving devotion of a son looking after his frail mother and the care of a stranger for a young girl he doesn’t know, but also the callous violence of a professional hitman. Despite Joe’s cold exterior, Phoenix captures the emotional toll his life has taken on him; although the audience may see physical scars across the character’s lumbering form, the emotional scars clearly run much deeper.
Golden Girls’ star, Judith Anna Roberts, gives an outstanding performance as Joe’s somewhat dementia-damaged, elderly mother. She provides moments of black–humoured comedic relief within the enduring horrors of the film; her inability to shower herself while stubbornly refusing her son’s help creates a humorous moment between mother and frustrated son.
This is a disturbing portrait of the evil corruption that is rampant among those who are in power, but it also reminds the audience of the good that can be found among those who find strength in themselves.
You Were Never Really Here is playing at various cinemas around Adelaide.
Check out the official website here.