"Someday, a real rain will come and wash this scum off the streets.”
These were the words of Travis Bickle (an iconic Robert De Niro), the titular urban chauffer in Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader’s ’76 document of discontent, Taxi Driver. A scorching look at “God’s lonely man” – a mentally diseased Vietnam Vet whose every step carries him toward violence – Scorsese and Schrader were commenting on the plight of urban decay as much as they were painting a portrait of one disturbed individual’s quest to discover purpose amidst a Hellish sea of sin, where everyone around Travis has already spiritually passed on to whatever damnation awaits following their time on earth. The fact that Bickle ends up rescuing a teen prostitute (Jodie Foster) from the clutches of her lecherous pimp (Harvey Keitel) is virtually irrelevant. The taxi driver would’ve eventually found an excuse to destroy something (possibly beautiful) without the productive byproduct.
In You Were Never Really Here – Lynne Ramsay's fractured, violent ode to transmuted trauma – one suspects the rain Travis spoke of has already arrived. Only instead of cleansing the sidewalks and alleys of vermin, it simply caused the cockroaches to scurry indoors, where high-priced brothels offer the flesh of underage concubines to Senators and businessmen harboring appetites for destruction all their own. Now, it’s up to a silent avenger named Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) to act as a sort of hammer-wielding Noah, pulling these girls from the tide and returning them to their homes (which may or may not shelter the folks who sold them off to these carnal proprietors in the first place). The grime-caked environments are slightly cleaner, but certainly as haunted by the degenerates Travis so colorfully described; gentrification being the usher of this antiseptic wave. Danger still lurks around every corner of these neon-soaked American conurbations, threatening to relieve Joe of whatever target he’s currently paid to rescue.
Joe is a walking corpse; his soul destroyed long ago by not only tours as a Marine in Afghanistan and raids on human traffickers he helped lead during his days as an FBI agent, but also by a father who battered him and his mother when the liberator was just a boy. None of this is doled out via pages of exposition, mind you. Instead, Ramsay takes Jonathan Ames’ 114-page novella of the same name and adapts it herself, before chopping the scenes she shoots into a threadbare narrative that’re remixed into a linear tale of vengeance, with recollections of abuse and atrocity acting as upsetting interludes. From the movie’s opening moments, Ramsay immerses us in Joe’s pain, letting us hear him mutter his father’s words (“…stand up straight, you fucking pussy…”) before awakening with his head wrapped in the thin plastic of a dry-cleaning bag. It’s as if Joe learned long ago that there was no escaping the ache that inhabits this world, as it’s painted on the faces of women who wait with him on train platforms.
As Joe, Joaquin Phoenix continues to prove why he may be the most talented, exciting actor of his generation. Just as he distorted his body into an emaciated alcoholic for The Master and a shaggy, sideburns-sporting detective in Inherent Vice for Paul Thomas Anderson, with Ramsay he’s this fleshy slab of brutality; all puffy cheeks, unkempt beard, and sunken eyes beneath a baseball cap. Joe is a man who’s obviously haunted by depression, and who can only internalize this hurt and then channel it into intense bursts of aggression. These explosions aren’t just aimed at the man’s targets, as even being made to wait in a hallway by one of his suppliers can cause the punisher to lash out. In his own way, Phoenix is reminiscent of Harvey Keitel’s anonymous awful cop in Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant, only instead of pure id, Joe manifests his trauma as a hulking lump of sentient meat, rage channeled into a new hammer he picks up at a random hardware store during his latest quest to recover a Senator’s daughter (Ekaterina Samsonov).
While he operated inside the system before, Joe is now an independent contractor, meeting with bodega owners in back rooms for payment, and handlers in downtown offices for his next assignment. In-between, he cares for his elderly mother (Judith Roberts), making sure she doesn’t get too scared watching Psycho by herself while he’s off doing his “job”. However, after retrieving the Senator’s seed – his raid captured by security cameras as Ramsay denies us the catharsis most “action films” offer – Joe becomes engulfed by the very same establishment he used to serve. You Were Never Really Here is hopeless when it comes to institutions, as Joe obviously lost faith in being able to serve anyone while he was a soldier or an officer of the law. Then the government itself conspires to snatch the young girl out of his grip, as local cops and even flag-wearing agents close in on him, serving the appetites of the empowered, privileged vermin Travis’ rain revealed to be the true threat to American safety. To call Ramsay’s picture anti-establishment would be an understatement. It’s often as paranoid as Alan J. Pakula’s The Parallax View.
Scoring You Were Never Really Here is a jangly mix of guitars and ambient, electronic hymns from Jonny Greenwood, who provides the very best score of his already legendary career. What’s equally incredible is how Greenwood’s pulsing, discordant rhythms mix with Joe Bini’s jagged editing and Thomas Townend’s textured photography to provide an otherworldly landscape that is never safe or easily recognizable. Cityscapes blend into one another just as easily as a cab driver’s singing intermingles with Greenwood’s synths to provide a soundtrack that’s both tense and soothing simultaneously. Ramsay’s cinema is a truly sensual experience, engaging the audience on all levels, just to disarm them moments later.
89 minutes. That's how long it takes for You Were Never Really Here to alter our perception of the world around us. Where Scorsese painted American cities in shrouds of fog – the jazzy notes of Bernard Herrmann’s score linking Bickle's devastating forward motion with noir mysteries of the past – Ramsay's vision is unsettlingly modern and sinister. Even after we reach the other side of Joe’s endeavor, nothing about his existence is safe, and may be better off ended entirely. If anything, Ramsay’s picture is further proof that purpose doesn’t protect those who seek to rid the universe of human filth, even if they’re rescuing innocence from those who seek to corrupt its beauty. The only heroes are traumatized animals, finally let out of their cage, only to find new bars where the old ones used to be. Trauma is the weapon wielded by Phoenix’s angel, and no mercy will be shown, even to himself. With You Were Never Really Here, Lynne Ramsay has molded a sleek masterpiece, unafraid of the notion that, in the end, we may all be lost to our own pain.
You Were Never Really Here is in select theaters now, and will continue to expand in the coming weeks.