In the past year, Joaquin Phoenix has played the Joker, won an Oscar for his performance, and in the process of playing an acclaimed and beloved character he has become a household name. While I love Joaquin, there’s another movie which I believe is his best role and performance to date. That is Joe in 2018’s “You Were Never Really Here” by Lynne Ramsey.
Be warned, much like the observations and the grit in “Joker,” this is not a film for the faint of heart.
Set in New York City, “You Were Never Really Here” sees a veteran of the FBI and an undisclosed American conflict now working as a fixer in the city. A job that requires his cunning and brute force, but also forces him to see some pretty dark things.
While you may think that his background makes him very equipped for a life and career detangling complex and illegal situations, the work has an extreme mental toll on Joaquin’s Joe. With numerous tough encounters with people leaving Joe to reflect on his prior careers and the horrors he witnessed while working them.
Joe is not a well man, his mind is scarred from war, his soul is ravaged with the horror humanity is capable of and his heart is wounded from a life of trauma. All starting with living under the terror of his abusive father as a child. Experiences that bring with it memories which Joe is forced to revisit as he cares for his now elderly mother.
While the picture painted thus far of Joe all seems to point to a dark and twisted man, the experiences have also given him a sense of duty and purpose in that he wants to protect others he deems innocent from the struggles and pains of life.
In this film, that is a young teenage girl he encounters when her father hires him to save her from a criminal organization.
To Joe, he sees himself in the girl. She has experienced heinous crimes committed against her by deeply damaged and depraved people. But there is still a glimmer of youth in her, and Joe wants nothing more than to save whatever innocence she has so she can live a normal life, one unlike his of tortured memories and emotional pain.
That is what makes Joe a great character. His trauma makes him inclined to want to save and protect those he deems innocent. Looming over the bad guys, Joe takes out every obstacle in his way like he’s the terminator.
But he isn’t a machine, he’s a deer limping away from the street after being hit. His fate hasn’t been sealed, but the internal damage may be irreversible and lead to his demise. His only hope is if he can save the youth of a child nearly as damaged as he was. Because saving her means that there is still hope for him to be saved as well.
While all of this may seem mellow dramatic and overtly reflective, the film executes all of these scenes and heavy themes in a very tasteful and minimalist manner. The flashbacks are brief but still impactful and vivid. The pain seen from Joe’s younger years very real and traumatic, but not explicitly shown. Rather, the face of his father is not shown, the towel on his face and ball-peen hammer in his father’s hand instead made the focal points of his flashbacks. The same weapon of choice Joe wields when working his jobs. And the hot towel on his face the same means of calming him that his own father used.
The film shows that we cannot outrun our demons, and that they will always be a part of our makeup. The decision does however lie with us in how we decide to utilize our past and our traumas and progress forward. Whether for the betterment or detriment of society, we always have a choice at how we choose to forge ahead when facing the vile elements of our past and present.
Grant Mitchell is a junior majoring in public relations. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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