You Were Never Really Here hits theaters this week. Get your tickets here!
Joe stares into the mirror of a run-down Russian bathhouse, pale flesh bloated and clammy like a body found floating in a lake, water still trickling between ugly ropes of scar tissue as his features slowly twist into a killer’s smile, the act of ritual cleansing granting the ghost within the power to infuse the corpse with a semblance of life.
This one scene in a film as sparing in terms of dialogue, exposition and indeed running time as Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here is an illustration of every element and moment pulling double duty in serving theme and character. The origins of Joe’s scars are never explained, but they both underline the violence of a past we only see hints of in flashback and symbolise the unseen scarring of a broken psyche which Joaquin Phoenix otherwise depicts in Joe’s hunched posture: shoulders pushed forward, arms held rigidly at his side, head down and eyes hidden. The film’s character also becomes that of its protagonist, its economy and precision reflected in the tai chi moves Joe runs through in the bathhouse, the absence of wasted motion as he stows the tools of his trade or metes out hammer-blow violence. A body running to seed is the only flab in the piece, and here Phoenix’s physicality is again doing that work of illuminating character: Joe’s bulk dominates, distinctive even when immersed in cinematographer Thomas Townend’s deep shadows or bursting beyond the frame as Joe erupts in violence and emotion.
Reticent as he is about his process, to the point of dismissing the idea of anything other than giving himself over to the moment once on set, this evocation of character is present throughout Joaquin Phoenix’s work, often in a single scene or shot which conveys a wealth of character information without words or expression.
It’s immediately evident as the structural tricks of To Die For introduce Jimmy Emmett at either end of his narrative arc: first cowed by authority and fidgeting in a correctional facility, then in flashback, slouching in the classroom rebellion he uses to disguise shyness born of a lack of smarts. Toby N. Tucker enters U Turn full of Elvis swagger, raw machismo fuelling the arm possessively draped over his gal, but it’s not until the third act of Return To Paradise that we see the mental and emotional toll taken on the imprisoned Lewis McBride, trembling and rocking like a caged animal, while Max California’s loose-limbed, almost camp, sexuality in 8mm grounds his acceptance with the porn underground that renders him a damsel in distress in its third act.
Phoenix’s films with James Gray particularly showcase his technique: in The Yards Willie Gutierrez is a rockstar wiseguy, his expansive gestures and welcoming self-confidence befriending everyone, and this gregariousness bleeds directly into club manager Bobby Green in We Own The Night before he progressively withdraws, closing down physically and emotionally as the plot beats the life from him. The opening shot of Two Lovers captures Leonard Kraditor’s depression purely in his stooped gait before conveying childishness and awkwardness in his smallest motions, while in The Immigrant Gray teams Phoenix with another actor working with mercurial physicality, Marion Cotillard, and the two engage in a dance of body language which peels back Bruno Weiss’ huckster showmanship as Ewa Cybulska builds the self-belief she needs to defy him.
Another such pairing comes in Phoenix’s first collaboration with Paul Thomas Anderson, The Master. His Freddy Quell is hunched and gaunt, full of strange birdlike nervous energy fuelled by his alcoholism, hands reversed on his hips and splaying his elbows as if trying to hold in all the things which are broken inside, but in Lancaster Dodd, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, he finds his mirror image, and the scenes in which the two trade confidences, liquor and body language are not only intense examples of acting craft but at the film’s narrative core. More unexpected is Phoenix’s turn in Anderson’s Inherent Vice, an under-utilised talent for physical comedy coming to the fore as he effectively turns himself into a Looney Tunes character to depict Doc Sportello’s stoner disconnect from reality in a performance full of tiny shudders, looks askance, elaborate pratfalls and exaggerated motion, not to mention that sudden scream instantly followed by serious composure, his comic timing immaculate.
Haughty defiance in Gladiator, ramrod decency in Quills, insolently standing at ease in Buffalo Soldiers, eager-beaver innocence in Ladder 49, studied imitation of Johnny Cash in Walk The Line, subtle externalisation of shifting emotional states in Her: Joaquin Phoenix’s filmography is composed of these moments in which his characters’ inner thoughts and emotions are expressed outwardly, often enough in the form of minute, tightly controlled gestures.
It’s acting at its purest: part of the actor’s task is to animate the corpse lying on the page, to give life to a character rendered only in dialogue and action. In a movie which is essentially a star vehicle, much of that work is done by a cinematic persona, the character instead more akin to a costume the star dons for this particular movie: think of action stars whose name and presence is the whole draw and purpose of the movies in which their individual characters are practically indistinguishable. Certainly there are characters with little to distinguish them, so dead on the page they would be the same in anyone’s hands, but given the right material, the finest actors are able to infuse their character with not just a semblance of life, but a full expression of interior existence that goes way beyond the script, as if it is instead the character wearing the actor as a costume.
This is what we see in You Were Never Really Here: an actor who relies not on his own recognisability, but his ability to make a character recognisable, who takes the exploitation flick staple of a broken veteran out for revenge and makes him real. As portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix, Joe is really here.