Revenge or Atonement?

[This first appeared at The Jagged Word on July 20.]

[SPOILERS]

Another recent film is often compared to Taxi Driver, but it’s both better and worse than First Reformed. I had a free Redbox rental, which is as good as Movie Pass for seeing movies on which I’m not sure whether I want to spend actual money. So I rented You Were Never Really Here, a story that I liked more than First Reformed, though it’s not nearly as beautiful. I will watch almost any movie that features Joaquin Phoenix, because he’s brilliant. And he needs to be in this movie, because it’s so understated that anyone unwilling to think a little will lose patience very quickly (as many reviews on IMDB prove).

I’m not claiming it’s anything new or groundbreaking. It’s sort of an art house Taken: not nearly as straightforward (which is what was great about that movie), but punctuated by brutal violence in pursuit of young girls being kidnapped, used, and exploited. This is not an explainer movie; more like a painting, where you have to do a little work to put the pieces together. I think the pieces are there, but there are still some unanswered questions. Who is the man for whom Joe works? He has an office, he gives Joe jobs to go out and rescue kidnapped girls, but that’s about all we know.

The other question for which the viewer has to provide his or her own answer is, how much of the film is happening inside Joe’s head? Some of it clearly is, marked off by surreal scenes where people or actions appear and disappear. But how far does the title extend? At which points is Joe really there? How many girls does he rescue? Does he actually end up rescuing Nina (a languid—in a good way—Ekaterina Samsonov)? My wife thinks not, and it’s definitely plausible within the world of the film.

This is a film of sharp contrasts: some sparkling cinematography combined with dark, urban crime; the wilderness alongside the city; near silence and then loud trains and city sounds; the care and humor that Joe shares with his mother bracketing the brutality of his angry violence; love and revenge.

I admit, my old Adam likes revenge flicks. In the real world, “vengeance is mine, saith the Lord.” But in a fictional world, I want especially fathers to be able to track down the evil and bring them to their just ends. The fact is, of course, that most fathers don’t have those very specific sets of skills that will allow us to do that. Fiction and reality are generally far apart on that point. And whether it’s Liam Neeson, Mel Gibson, the Boondock Saints (man, the first one is so good, and the sequel[s] are so bad), or Joaquin Phoenix, they are in fact playing God, and creatures can’t do that for very long before the burden is too much for them.

The burden for Joe is not so much revenge as it is atonement. Revenge doesn’t actually interest him very much, though it’s central to the story. The senator who asks for his help in tracking down his daughter tells Joe that he wants him to hurt the people who took his daughter, but Joe is unemotional on the point, neither affirmative nor negative. The only point at which the fire of revenge flares up is when he finds his mother murdered.

As the movie progresses and the flashbacks become more substantive, we see that Joe is walking a very thin line between self-destruction and continuing to live in a world in which he’s stuck. Faces of girls whom he apparently failed to rescue appear and disappear, while he flirts with various forms of suicide—one of which (from the opening scene) stems from a childhood surrounded by a different kind of violence and abuse. He’s exhausted, but he can’t stop because he has a driving need to atone for his failures. That, rather than the act of rescuing the girls itself, pushes him forward.

But perhaps the orphaned Nina can provide a way out, even if the way forward is unknown. That’s the question, and the hope, of the film. With nothing left to hold him or to restrain him, he’s actually kept from carrying out what is set up to be his most ferocious vengeance. Maybe, then, she can “save” him from himself. It is up to the viewer to decide whether Joe has been saved or damned in the cafe at the end.

It takes until the very end for this film to provide a bright hint of goodness in a world of darkness, but maybe sometimes that’s all we need to prevent our own downward spirals into the swamp of everything we see around us. For those tempted toward cynicism (as I often am), a small moment of crystallized joy can point us back in the right direction.

You Were Never Really Here isn’t the greatest film that I’ve seen this year [although I’m willing to be convinced otherwise by the likes of Thomas Torrey], and it follows a few well-worn paths. Even so, if dark films with the slimmest corona of light are your thing, it’s worth its 89 minutes.

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