You Were Never Really Here

“This cream cheese is from 1972”

Review by Lily Taylor

I think I ought to start this review with a disclaimer, just in case Joaquin Phoenix ever stumbles upon this blog. I love Joaquin, I think he is a wonderful actor with amazing range and depth of character and what I’m about to say about this film does not affect my feelings about him as an artist nor human being whatsoever. Please forgive me Joaquin.

Phoenix plays a hired gun by the name of Joe who is tasked with rescuing a kidnapped young girl (Ekaterina Samsonov) by her father, New York state senator Albert Votto (Alex Mannette). I don’t know about you folks, but I’m already getting ‘Man On Fire’ flashbacks at this point. The young girl, Nina, has been abducted for use in a high end brothel along with several other underage girls and Joe sets out on what should be a fairly simple rescue mission.

Meanwhile, we begin to get to know Phoenix’s character a little better. We find out he helps to care for his aged mother (Judith Roberts) and still lives with her in his childhood home. We also see that Joe is severely plagued by PTSD; he spends an inordinate amount of time with his head inside a plastic bag and often has flashbacks to the abuse that he and his mother suffered at the hands of his hot-tempered father. The only real human interactions Joe has during the film are with his mother and his handler, John McLeary (John Doman).

Soon after rescuing Nina, Joe sees on the news that her father Senator Votto has committed suicide and two police officers bust into his hotel room to take Nina and attempt to kill Joe. While one police officer successfully kidnaps the girl (again), Joe is forced to kill the second officer in order to escape. Shortly after returning to his home he finds his mother shot through the head while laying in bed with a pillow over her face, used as a silencer. Joe soon realises the perpetrators are still in the house and fatally shoots one. The other government agent is wounded and Joe questions him on his mother’s death and the motive behind Nina’s kidnapping.

I won’t divulge much more about the plot although I’m sure you can guess where it’s going. The scene in which Joe questions the injured agent was a very interesting one. Joe shares the man’s dying minutes and actually seems to provide him with comfort during this time despite being the one who shot him. There is music playing in the background and the fatally wounded man tries to sing along, Joe even joins in. I found this to be one of the more pertinent scenes in the film and it was clear that this man was simply following orders and there had been little malice behind his actions.

The other scene that I found poignant was when Joe drives his mother’s body to a nearby lake. He waded into the water dressed in a suit and weighs her body down with rocks. Joe uses rocks to weigh himself down under the water in another suicidal ideation, but changes his mind when he remembers Nina. This scene was well shot, simple and beautiful. A stoic Joaquin played it well and the soundtrack was complimentary.

The soundtrack in most places was actually not bad, largely in contrast to the scene I found myself watching. When Joaquin is out on a mission we hear a song that sounds remarkably like a sinister version of ‘Danger Zone’ by Kenny Loggins and I’m honestly very disappointed that it wasn’t, wouldn’t you like to hear a heavy rock version of the ‘Top Gun’ classic?

One of my major beefs with this film is a lack of character development, for both Joe and Nina. We see glimpses of Joe’s childhood when he has flashbacks and he routinely acts on his suicidal urges but there is no development of this story line. Joe is as broken at the end of the film as he was at the start. He doesn’t appear to have learnt anything during this journey and I didn’t feel there was any healing aspect to what happens to him, even through his mother’s water burial. Similarly, Nina has obviously experienced her own traumas and appears to cope by counting backwards under her breath. She says very little for the duration of the movie and her character really felt like a shell, as though it hasn’t been fully thought out. I suppose maybe that was the point?

I found the story line to be rushed and there wasn’t a huge amount of clarity around Joe’s career situation or on Nina’s situation with Senator Votto and Governor Williams. The title of the film implies a focus on the presence of Phoenix’s character. The first few scenes of the film focus on Joe not being seen when he goes out, leaving a water fountain running but disappearing before anyone sees him, his outrage about being spotted by McLeary’s son. Initially there is a first person camera angle so even the audience don’t see Joe. Sadly, I felt this sentiment was lost as the film progressed and morphed into a lacklustre pastiche of other revenge style action films.

I would give ‘You Were Never Really Here’ 6 Lace Socks out of 10

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