Choosing between orange or grape soda… watching Psycho with your mother on your day off… deciding to splurge on a brand name item at the store… remember when these things mattered…
There’s a small little moment early on in Ramsay’s film: ball-peen hammer wielding vigilante Joe – played to utter perfection by (former child actor) Joaquin Phoenix – places two cans of soda, one grape and one orange, in his car seat’s, passenger side, cup-holders; just before heading out to a brothel full of rich men housing child prostitutes – ready to wreck havoc on these f*cks who kidnap/keep little girls imprisoned as their sex toys, ready to be as brutal as possible (as that’s precisely what he’s paid for), ready to make Ryan Gosling’s Driver look like a care-free pushover. This sliver of a moment shot my heart full of more light than it had been exposed to in weeks.
It’s the tinniness of these intimate human details that (for me) succeeded in elevating a familiar formula, the simplest shift in (what could be seen as) a tired archetype, to something special. It’s clear Ramsay is directly concerned, foremost, with how to implant the day to day experiences of genuinely distraught and permanently damaged man into the mind of her audience. She places viewers straight inside the head of a suffering and severely abused veteran. Joe is now nothing but a nomad who feels unwanted artifacts being forged in every corner of his mind, every minute of every day. He feels unwanted any and everywhere he ever lumbers, all the while hating himself for it and, perhaps even more harmful, hating himself for not preventing it.
Through her trademark guttural, hopeless and fatalistically vibrant, ‘hack and hack’ aesthetic (as I’m calling it), Lynne Ramsay wields the base power of cinematic juxtaposition as a purposeful sensory assault – the editing, music, and sound design all accentuating the violence to such an extremity that you feel every blow Joe strikes and each moment he doesn’t. In one security camera sequence, her editing choices elevate the audio/visual prowess to a new level. The other (and obviously) brilliant creative decision: casting an actor who is somehow able to channel the hulking, brutal babyness of Brando’s finest physical work – a deft balance of the child-like/vulnerable monster – and the damaged solider – the aimless, introspective, wear and tear of Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle. Phoenix drags himself through empty alleys and poorly lit hallways.
Publicly he tends to speak in mostly mumbles, secretly hoping nobody is able to hear him. He’s the kind of man who can no longer remember what it was like to feel joy in getting to decide what flavor of artificial fruit he wants his carbonated sugar water to be, or how to find solace in a film reflecting his own situation. A trip to the hardware store is another numbing reminder; he would rather not be alive than put the effort in. Joe is but a void now, entirely dead inside, no longer a man. His mission: prevent anyone he possibly can from feeling as he has. This philosophy shapes the entirety of his existence now. “Where you spend your time, what do you do?”, his mother asks him. “If she’s there, I’ll get her back,” is all he ever needs to say to his employers.
While the film shares numerous structural similarities to the ‘calm, cool, criminal professional sub-genre’ – the viewer is shown the routine nature of Joe’s assignment’s (same as Jef in Le Samourai, Frank in Thief, or Gosling’s, aforementioned, wheel-man in Drive), before being introduced to the banality of his lifeless day to day situation he visits his mother, then suffocates himself within an inch of entering the after-life, in an attempt to feel something. Then he is hired for a new job which almost immediately goes wrong. What allows Ramsay to breath new light back into the godless, labyrinth-like world of noir-flavored cinema, is the distinct, detail oriented approach to how the central character is compassionately humanized. By exploring the traumatic depths in which Joe’s day-to-day existence has been (almost solely) inhabited by non-stop, excessive violence, the picture breathes (and breathes quite heavily) through an exhibition of raw, human empathy.
Melville, Mann and Refn, all keep an emotional distance from their ‘professional protagonists’ – their suppressed, wandering bodies hide lonely, ashamed desires behind a repressed physical presence. The quiet hit-man resists being weighed down by the pain of memory by keeping intimacy far, far away. Joe uses what remains heavy in his heart to keep his head up and on his shoulders, even if it is titled down towards the ground more often than not. He’s a soldier who’s felt his own soul strangled so often, and so intensely he has essentially lost all capacity to care about himself, he’s been so spurned. He won’t let himself, or anyone, contribute to making others feel the same.
It’s essentially impossible to grasp one kind of emotional extremity without experiencing its opposite. You Were Never Really Here understands this binary, displays more wisdom in its careful handling, as well as just about any noir film to date. Inching closer to death is the only way Joe can possibly find any sort of light. Playing with a switch-blade, pointing a gun to his forehead: these are the only kind of frightening moments enabling Joe to feel remotely like he’s still living at all. Suicide is a dream almost, taking part in what others see as life-fulfilling is the ongoing nightmare. An alternate title of the film in some countries is A Beautiful Day. Those aren’t always real anymore. Not if the world has tortuously treated one as it has this traumatized veteran.
Ramsay’s remarkable movie makes for a transcendent, purely cinematic, experience through the expression and treatment of isolated despondency. Rather than let the sound of silence tell this man’s story, Lynne’s mission is to let a siege of his senses seize you. In Drive, The Chromatic’s “Tick of the Clock” thrusts the audience inside the beating heart of Gosling’s adrenaline junkie. Jonny Greenwood (speaking of, is anyone else even in consideration for best composer working at the moment?) accomplishes something similar by attacking the ear in the same way Joe’s memories continue to lurch after him moment to moment – a constant state of fearing he may about to be jumped by his own injuries in the dark, dank void of a damp back alley. The opening finds the audience bearing witness to this. After brushing off an assault in just two quick motions, plus a headbutt, Joe nearly incapacitates a desperate mugger. He barely flinches. Zero panic. The vet looks over the would-be assailant’s body, turning to walk the other way down the alley. The mugger lays on the asphalt, throwing up whatever was in his stomach.
We won’t see him again. He was never even there. Joe gets in the back of a cab, drives off. The attempted theft is captured in a single take. The steps Phoenix makes, nearly silent. The brief explosion of violence is not.