A Subtle Hammer

Ramsay’s portrait of an assassin has no easy answers

Film | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

You Were Never Really Here
Rainbow Cinemas Studio 7

There’s probably no “trade” more overrepresented in movies than killer-for-hire. It’s weird, because murders by assassins aren’t very common and when they are in the news, everyone knows about them (I’ll take “Russians and Polonium” for $200, Alex). Movies overuse hitpeople because they need someone for the hero to punch in action scenes and assassins are cheaper than monsters from outer space.

But when a filmmaker like Lynne Ramsay makes a movie about assassins, well, one must pay attention. The director of Morvern Callar and We Need to Talk About Kevin (easily the smartest take on gun violence in schools) doesn’t “do” cheap thrills, and she  knows how to explore the darkest corners of her character’s souls without losing sight of their humanity (take note, Lars Von Trier).

Shaped as a procedural, You Were Never Really Here is really a character study of a damaged and depressed man teetering on the edge. Joaquin Phoenix is Joe, an assassin whose weapon of choice is a hammer (a blunt weapon, get it?). Between jobs, Joe half-assedly tries to kill himself but chickens out at the last minute.

A gig pops up on his radar. He’s hired to rescue a pre-teen girl from a prostitution ring. Joe goes about his business with his usual efficiency, but the mission gets complicated as higher-up political figures become involved.

In theory, this could pass for an episode of Law & Order: SVU but Ramsay digs deeper. As an economical and effective filmmaker, she doesn’t care about the violent scenes as much as what happens in between: the banality of preparation, the moments of rest, the horrors of self-reflection. A scene with Joe and a dying contract killer is raw and searing: Your life is ending, what do you do with your final seconds?

Phoenix’s role has been compared to Robert De Niro’s in Taxi Driver, but where Travis Bickle is self-righteous, Joe is desperate for redemption. He can’t live with himself, but can’t end his life either. It’s a superb depiction of a man who has turned his life into purgatory.

Ramsay doesn’t even try to provide answers to the existential questions the movie hints at. Unlike We Need to Talk About Kevin (“walk away from those you love if they’re bringing you down”), hard lessons are not learned and Joe’s personal limbo becomes a shared one.

Have a fun time at the movies, everybody!