Joe (You Were Never Really Here)

Created by Jonathan Ames

A dark and disturbing character study dressed up in action flick clothes, You Were Never Really Here (2017) stars Joaquin Phoenix as JOE, an unstable former FBI agent and Marine, plagued by thoughts of suicide. He hunts down missing girls in the New York City area, but he’s not some slick, handsome private eye knight in shining armor, cracking glib one-liners while he’s out saving damsels in distress–rather, he’s a broken, tortured mercenary and sometime assassin; a damaged recluse who lives with his elderly mother in the shadows with an abusive childhood in his past, no light in his future, and a frightening present-day propensity for violence and inarticulate rage (although he is handy with tools). And it’s not dragons that he’s rescuing the girls from, but human trafficking.

The film was based on the equally bleak 1913 novella of the same name, written by  Jonathan Ames, and directed by Lynne Ramsay. Phoenix, as Joe, barely recognizable at first under an unkempt, graying mass of beard, gives a shambling, mumbling performance, so wrong it’s right, and it’s all the rest of the cast can do to keep up. Not there’s much room–this relentless film is stripped to the bones, so taut and tight it almost squeaks.

Hired to retrieve a New York state senator’s pre-pubescent daughter, Nina, from the downtown Manhattan whorehouse where she’s being held prisoner, Joe makes short–but brutal–work of her captors, killing several security guards and a few johns in the process. But it turns out the place was connected to some very powerful interests, and Joe and Nina have to take it on the lam. It’s a sort of updated spin on Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), but lacking that iconic film’s light-hearted, happy-go-lucky moments.

It’s a hard movie to love, but very easy to hate. Plenty of people don’t “get” it, or it’s not what they expected, or it’s just too damn dark. This is real “noir”–unapologetic, served straight up, teetering on the edge of total despair. But film buffs lapped it up. An early cut that premiered at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, where Ramsay won the award for Best Screenplay and Phoenix nabbed the Best Actor award.

I’m not even sure if I’d want to watch it again, but I’m glad/relieved I saw it. Once.


I guess I should also be glad/relieved that, for once, the protagonist in You Were Never Really Here is named “Joe,” and not “Jonathan Ames.” Ames has a weakness for self-reference — he’s written a number of novels, short fiction and essays, often based on his own misadventures. In 2009, he published The Alcoholic, a graphic novel, illustrated by Dean Haspiel, about a New York writer’s struggle with alcoholism. The character’s name was… Jonathan Ames. And the neurotic New York City writer in the HBO series, Bored to Death, is also called… Jonathan Ames. His other works include the novels I Pass Like NightThe Extra Man, and Wake Up, Sir!, and the essay collections include What’s Not to Love?My Less Than Secret LifeI Love You More Than You Know, and The Double Life Is Twice as Good. He also edited Sexual Metamorphosis: An Anthology of Transsexual Memoirs and has been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. More recently, he’s finally unleashed his inner detective, and started a new series about dog-loving Los Angeles private eye Happy Doll.

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