When life hands you lemons, you make lemonade.
You make lemonade, or in the protagonist’s case in the film, “You were Never Really Here”, a bloodbath wherever you go.
Joaquin Phoenix plays Joe, a character who struggles with a reality that is liberally sprinkled with flashbacks of abuse, neglect, and soul-crunching trauma. What comes out of his tortuous childhood — and traumatic events from a naturally following adulthood – is a man who barely functions; yet like a trauma-induced idiot savant, there is one thing he’s really good at – killing.
Killing is almost cliché in films anymore. In action films, people are shot and shoot others with the same flippancy as dipping potato chips into chip dip and with the same care as one does who makes sure the chip doesn’t break as one dips. Bang bang you’re dead x infinity + 1.
Horror films get a little bit more creative with their killing, often too creative, to the point where one is vicariously traumatized by watching a victim’s entrails coil onto a barbeque spit. At the same time, watch enough of these scenarios and barely feel a flicker of your eyelids as you watch them. You know when the victim turns corner A that monster A will be waiting to grab them. I’m not sure which is worse, watching the horror of a maniac butchering innocent victims or being completely desensitized to taking in said butchering.
With Joe, there is the implication that he tried to live a normal life when he was younger. Where he finds himself now is in his 40’s, living with his mother as her caretaker, out of shape, aimless, struggling with reality and dabbling in mind-altering substances that may or may not be helping with that struggle.
Back to the killing. For Joe, it’s a job, a routine that he’s become comfortable with. It’s a job he’s extremely good at. There are elements that I won’t give away, but the killing serves other functions. When a job goes awry, Joe’s semi-ordered life is thrown into a tailspin.
As I was trying to describe the film to someone, I pondered as to whether this role was created with Joaquin Phoenix in mind. I don’t have the answer to that question right now, but Joaquin was unquestioningly made for this role. He inhabits Joe and breathes life into him. The profile of a man such as Joe in real life is often where such a man is marginalized and dismissed as a crazy best to be avoided. Where human empathy might salve his sad and pointless existence, such a man instead is often left to the shadows. Left to consort with the most depraved elements any society can possess.
Cannes Film Festival 2017
Winner Best Actor Joaquin Phoenix
Winner Best Screenplay Lynne Ramsay
Nominee Palme d’Or Lynne Ramsay