You Were Never Really Here (aka A Beautiful Day) review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
Imagine if someone was given the keys to the Taken franchise and given full reign to reboot the formula into something better; a movie where the quest for a missing girl wasn’t as simply portrayed as a predictable series of shootouts and showdowns. Kills are met with a grit and fear for the taking of life rather than points on a scoreboard. Actions are carried out in a very refined manner so our eyes are always led rather than blurred. In other words, everything that a hitman revenge picture can and should be.
Part of the appeal is that writer/director Lynne Ramsay put more faith in our eyes for visual clues than our ears for banal action movie babble. We’re introduced to the hitman Joe, played by a mostly silent and fully-bearded Joaquin Phoenix, as a simple man with a dark past. He lives with his ailing mother, sharing small smiles amid the television. Joe keeps his work quiet, using few words with his clients and not a peep with his targets. When not on the hunt, his mind is a mess of flashes about murder during war and suffocation of children, memories from his past that he struggles to keep at bay, relegated to quick shouts of terror through his head.
His latest mission seems like a standard one of retrieving a kidnapped senator’s daughter. And even though it will eventually lead into a bigger plot where Joe becomes a target, I expected this route as well. No matter. Joe rolls with the punches with little more than a hammer from the hardware store. His colleagues will become targets in a political conspiracy of murder, but Joe isn’t interested in peeling back all the layers of the why with the worst of humanity. He can only see a man who needs killing and a girl who needs saving.
I love the way Ramsay approaches nearly every scene. Take for example the violent scenario where Joe works his way up an apartment building brothel, killing his way to the girl. Action movies have conditioned us to see every juicy money shot, but Ramsay keeps the massacre somewhat tasteful and terrifying with a distance. Most of Joe’s kills are either off-screen or hidden and blurred as we watch the carnage unfold almost silently from security camera footage. This may make the film seem like a tease, but it actually breeds a grander sense of anticipation. There will be other scenes where the camera gets closer with grittier violence, catching us off-guard for one of the bloodiest and most brutal scenes that smacks one over the head with the same force of the Joe Pesci’s execution in Goodfellas.
Every kill feels as though it means something, focusing on the life that leaves the mortal coil. Joe doesn’t merely kill and move on, lingering long on someone who was once moving and now lies a shell. When two assassins enter his home, he wounds one of them to live long enough to talk. But rather than end his misery, Joe sits with him and gently starts singing. The two continue the song until one of them is no longer for this world. Joe wants to hold onto life, for as hard as it may be as suicide continues to plague his thoughts like a nagging itch begging for an easement.
Few action films are ever this contemplative with the chaos, favoring the blood be pumped rather than take in the situation. You Were Never Really Here lets us inside Joe’s mind, showcasing that there’s more behind the beard and bullets than a ruthless killing machine. It’s easily one of the best roles for Joaquin Phoenix who tells us so much about this fractured figure without so much as a word.