You Were Never Really Here. (2017)
This film received a lot of critical acclaim on release, so I was looking forward to seeing it. I deliberately didn’t try to find out too much about it, to leave my mind open to what it had to offer.
And that is a very dark tale. One of the abduction of underage girls, for sexual abuse by the rich and influential. A damaged army veteran who has found employment in rescuing them and returning them to their families. And the violent retribution he hands out to those responsible. Joaquin Phoenix stars as Joe, scarred in both mind and body, haunted by flashbacks of his service in various wars, and the corruption he has returned to.
He carries out his job with ruthlessness, dishing out extreme violence with his weapon of choice, a small hammer. Yet he has a softer side, caring lovingly for his confused elderly mother, in the family home. His employer is a former security operative, who sends Joe out looking for the missing girls, after finding their location. Joe uses all his army training and skills to successfully save the girls, and his record is flawless.
However, when he is asked to find the abducted daughter of an influential politician, his mission becomes increasingly complicated, as he falls foul of both the criminal organisation, and the secret political agents who want to cover up the crime. The second half of the film deals with this tense game of cat and mouse, with Joe more determined than ever to take care of the girl, and hand out revenge on all involved.
Phoenix delivers an intense turn as Joe, method-acting, and completely believable. He is in every scene, and despite the brief appearances of his mother and boss, as well as the girl he tries to rescue, the film is more or less a one-man band. Unfortunately, there are many flashbacks and fantasy sequences, designed to supply the viewer with some backstory to Joe, and to look inside his mind and thoughts. They don’t always work, and I found some of them confusing. Location filming in US cities is also convincing, and there are few tricks to deal with, and no excessive special effects.
On paper, this may sound like the sort of film where we might expect to see Jason Statham or Steven Seagal rushing to the rescue of the girls, and seeing off hordes of opposing criminals. But Phoenix is no wise-cracking tough guy. In his unwashed clothes and scraggly beard, he looks more like a vagrant, something that helps him blend into the inner-city landscape. No sexual scenes are shown on film, and when the violence is dealt out, it happens fast and furious, without any undue glorification. As Joe, Phoenix gives us a completely powerhouse performance, ably assisted by every supporting actor, no matter how small their role.
But I confess I was left wondering ‘Why’? Why film such a story? I presume the film was trying to tell me something about bad men doing bad things, and damaged men doing bad things too. But I already knew that.
This is an adaptation of a novel. Perhaps the book explained it better.