CRIME CULTURE: You Were Never Really Here

CRIME CULTURE: It’s the Joaquin Phoenix starring crime-action film that’s been dubbed “this generation’s Taxi Driver”. Is this nihilistic revenge thriller up to the hype? Gary Johnston with his considered verdict.

I like my heroes, flawed. I’ve never respected Superman, he’s prissy and – much worse – sexually repressed. Batman? Forget it. A rich business executive who likes to wear lycra and hang out with an old butler-servant as well as devoted, impressionable youth? There’s a fine line between flaw and perversion.

Joe – the hero of You Were Never Really Here, a film based on a scorching short story by Jonathan Ames – isn’t a hero at all.

He’s suicidal, traumatised, amoral and desperate. But he’s real.

Joe rescues kidnapped, exploited young girls. But he doesn’t actually give a shit about them. Armed with his trusted ball-peen hammer, Joe sets about the scumbags with a ruthless efficiency light on glamour but corpulent on efficiency, doing what he has to do without maximum, or for that matter any prejudice at all; it’s quite simply, his job.

No pleasure, no gratification, no satisfaction.

Joe lives with his Mum in a rundown apartment somewhere in New York. She’s housebound, demanding, but sweet, funny and durable and Joe looks after her with the sort of loving stoicism redolent of disappointed, middle aged children the world over, two-parts caring to ten parts damaged and off the scale dangerous.

In the opening scenes, as we see him head- butting a would-be mugger, his essential character is laid bare. Joe’s a loner, an unsociable, messed-up nut-job.


If this was most movies, Joe would be a psychopath, a rapist, a serial killer or paedophile – and we’d be due witness to his subsequent horrific crimes in every second of their appalling detail. Luckily, for us however, Lynn Ramsey the Scottish auteur, is far from another director. Ramsay makes movies about people, not situations. Joe is a psychopath – but a shallow one.

A bulked-up Joaquin Phoenix plays Joe with a bear-like intensity that silently screams vulnerability. And thus, irrevocably, puts us on his side.

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As he accepts a job retrieving the young runaway daughter of a US Senator involved in a gubernatorial election campaign and the storyline leads us to an underage brothel frequented by exactly the sort of slime- bags you’d expect – politicians – we’re far less interested in the plot than in Joe.

In this movie, the script doesn’t matter as much as the actor’s reaction and therein is the point.

You Were Never Really Here isn’t about the narrative. It’s a case study of dysfunction and pain. A portrayal of the concept of amorality and how it’s basically a busted flush. No one, regardless of who they are, what they’ve seen and what they do, is without an ethical core. Respect, concern and love will always be stronger than hate, self-centredness and remuneration.

Joaquin Phoenix
Bulked up but vulnerable: Joaquin Phoenix taking a much-needed breather in ‘You Were Never Really Here’

A triumph of tenderness over loathing, self or otherwise and – somehow – horribly, unexpectedly, funny.

With an atmospherically seductive soundtrack, this is a real film, one that challenges as much that it entertains, grips like a Mexican wrestler and offers an entirely new perspective on the naffest song of the 1980’s, Charlene’s ‘I’ve Never Been To Me‘.

Tarantino without glibness, John McTiernan without the reactionary politics, this is an important film.

Joe isn’t someone you want to be. You don’t admire him. You fear him, fear for him, worry about what will become of him, wish people like him didn’t exist, but no way would you would want to be him.

He’s a hero though, all the same.

See it.



TRUE OPINION: Confess or be damned!

About Gary Johnston 33 Articles
Gary Johnston is an author, academic and former parole officer with decades of experience in the criminal justice system. He is True Crime News Weekly's Melbourne correspondent. His book 'No Previous Conviction' was published in May 2017 and is available on Amazon.

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