From To Die For and Reservation Road through Irrational Man and The Master, Joaquin Phoenix has never flinched from showing man’s capacity for squalid or unhinged behavior. He is a searing talent whose usual refusal to ingratiate himself with audiences makes him one of the least fashionable of A-listers—at least when it comes to casting mega-budget films.
A “soft” Phoenix film like Her (2013) is a rarity because Phoenix is clearly more at home playing creeps, weirdos, and bums. His only current rival in espousing the shadowy side of human behaviour is the obsessive Jake Gyllenhaal of Zodiac and Nightcrawler.
In Lynne Ramsey’s November release You Were Never Really Here, Phoenix has apparently outdone himself playing a hit man who attempts—with the help of a hammer—to rescue the victim of a Manhattan pedophile ring.
Star and director received a seven-minute standing ovation when the movie had its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in May. Phoenix was duly honored with the festival’s Best Actor award. Ramsey—hitherto best known for Ratcatcher (1999) and Morvern Callar (2002)—won for Best Screenplay.
Phoenix’s Joe is an anguished Gulf War veteran and former Fed turned contract killer.
Wrote Guy Lodge in his Variety review: “Introduced in the middle of one of his evidently continual suicide attempts, Joe is a grizzled grizzly of a man, wasting not one more word than necessary on clients and professional allies, and reserving what kindness hasn’t been pummeled out of him for his elderly mother (a fine, aching Judith Roberts), with whom he lives in his yellowing childhood house in Queens.”
“Stray, chilling incursions of a man’s admonishing voiceover into the film’s densely layered soundtrack are all we need to fill in a backstory of severe spousal and parental abuse,” Lodge added.
An operative who makes his living fighting sex slavery, Joe is tasked with rescuing the repeatedly violated pre-adolescent daughter, Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), of a New York senator (Alex Manette).
Snippets from the trailer, which was released yesterday, place the kidnapped girl—whose elfin looks and blonde hair amplify her pathos—in a repugnant situation with an unclothed male predator.
They give full warning of how hard it will be to watch Ramsey’s adaptation of Jonathan Ames’ terse novel. Perhaps mercifully, You Were Never Really Here, which is propelled by Jonny Greenwood’s angular score, is only 85 minutes long.
The lineage of You Were Never Really Here includes John Ford’s The Searchers (1956), Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), Paul Schrader‘s Hardcore (1979), Joel Schumacher’s 8mm (1999), and Lukas Moodysson’s Lilya-4ever (2002)—of which the Ford and Scorsese films are acknowledged classics.
Whether Ramsey’s film attains that status depends, initially, on how widely it is seen and appreciated. (So do Phoenix’s Oscar chances, not that he will care two hoots if he is nominated or not.)
Given the upsetting subject matter, You Were Never Really Here‘s distributor Amazon Studios may find that translating the film’s Cannes kudos into art-house or mainstream success is a conundrum. Marketing it as a 21st-century Taxi Driver won’t hurt.