Spoilers might require therapy.
I had the strange privilege of watching Joaquin Phoenix in Joker before I heard the backlash of how some critics found the movie problematic. I think a great movie does not need to be pleasing to its audience. It can be disturbing and bleak and even uncomfortable to watch as long as its enthralling and captivating enough to keep you on the edge of your seat – literally keeping you in the balance between wanting to stay and wanting to leave. There is a previous film from Phoenix were that balance is even more precariously kept.
You Were Never Really Here (2017) is the work of director and screenwriter Lynne Ramsay, based on the book by Jonathan Ames. I think it’s here were Joaquin Phoenix honed his skills first, playing Joe. He’s a tortured veteran and hired gun that rescues girls abducted by sex traffickers. In another parallel to Joker, he also takes care of his frail aging mother, played here by Judith Roberts. The relationship with his mother has a little more depth as his flashbacks to his childhood show both him and his mother being the victims of abuse, by whom I supposed was his father.
Joaquin Phoenix carries the entire film. He presents what looks like an honest portrait of a damaged individual with psychological trauma. At no time does he cock a rifle or reveal he has a muscle car in the garage or rock and roll music plays as he’s hurting the bad guys. It’s not that kind of movie. Phoenix’s Joe is not able to indiscriminately hurt people because of some military or ninja training. His humanity is broken enough that he can walk away after inflicting pain without hesitation.
It’s not that he’s a killing machine such as the violent anti-heroic hitmen of a myriad of action films, it’s that his psyche is broken enough to do the work and walk out – but hardly unscathed. He just bears the brunt, takes the hit, ignores the demons of his past and moves on. However, the reality of he does keeps bringing up the trauma of his past, gnawing at his mind and soul in an ever increasing pattern. He stops short of several attempts at suicide by just a hair, and you know he’s living on borrowed time. As he takes another job to rescue a senator’s young daughter, you can tell this job is not going to go as planned.
Highly recommended for a character study of a man’s life ruined by violence and yet violence is all he knows. Definitely not a popcorn action film. This is not one you want you want to rent for family movie night, but you can catch it on Amazon’s Prime Video. Joaquin Phoenix’s performance is stellar, captivating but it’s also disturbing and hard to watch. It should be. In a realistic thriller with this level of violence nobody gets away clean even when they get away.
That will do for now.