Director: Lynne Ramsay
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Ekaterina Samsonov
Running time: 90 minutes
Gulf war veteran and former FBI agent Joe (Phoenix) now makes his living as a hired gun: safely returning kidnapped young girls and disposing of those responsible. But Joe is a tortured soul, and when his latest job – rescuing a Senator’s daughter from a child sex-trafficking ring – embroils him in a much larger conspiracy, it threatens to push him over the edge.
If Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2011 film Drive enthralled some audiences, frustrated others, and appalled the rest, then You Were Never Really Here is sure to do the same for viewers in 2018. Lynne Ramsay is a bold filmmaker, and here is a film with a mighty bold vision. And while it won’t hit the nail on the head for many a viewer – it’s distinctly absent of any trace of the slick, sexy genre dress-up we’ve been accustomed to – You Were Never Really Here sure takes a swing – and a bloody one at that – at a violent, complex thriller that almost never bows to convention, and in doing so, uncompromisingly takes us to some very, very dark places.
We open in Cincinnati, in a nondescript hotel room, where Joe has just completed his latest job. All we see are the tools of his trade – a bloodied hammer, duct tape, a handful of painkillers. Our imagination fills in the blanks. From there, in silence – save for Jonny Greenwood’s wonderful score – Joe begins his swift exit down the hotel’s narrow corridors, through doors, and along darkened alleyways. Ramsay’s camera follows his every move. And it’s here that You Were Never Really Here begins its dark and disturbing descent into a film heavily soaked in interiority (the aforementioned walkways and passages could just as easily be the twisted paths of Joe’s own psyche), where it is the mind, and not the hand, that is the most dangerous weapon of them all.
This is a tale of the tortured torturer on a bloody road to redemption. But Joe’s path – retrieving a senator’s missing daughter, Nina (an unnerving performance from 15-yr old Ekaterina Samsonov) – is littered with the haunting visions of past traumas – that of war-zone child deaths; of containers filled with bodies; and, most pivotal to Joe, of an abusive father. But crucially, Ramsay’s expositional jigsaw is never a complete one, leaving the audience to pick up the shattered pieces as Joe’s fractured, broken psyche and scar-ridden body moves largely under the cover of New York City night time darkness; through a narrative of violence, paedophilia, and kidnapping; through a film both enigmatic and accomplished.
And for large portions, You Were Never Really Here plays out like a horror film. Hitchcock’s Psycho plays on the television in Joe’s house, and grisly episodes of explosive violence are interspersed with more chilling, ambiguous helpings of the Avant-garde. Joe is more spectre than he is man: a ghostly apparition, numbed by the ghosts he sees every day, and numb to the pain he inflicts upon others. Like the undead of a Romero flick, he is relentless, never shown to rest until he has – in his own mind at least – exorcised the demons that feast upon his possessed memory. He wanders streets and buildings undetected and – as the film’s title would suggest – leaves without a trace. But just like the children he hopes to save, Joe too is lost: a lone warrior of life existing in a world of both the real and the surreal; of death and re-birth.
There are parallels to Taxi Driver throughout, but Ramsay’s film is an immersive and distinguished piece in a category of its own. Seamlessly transitioning from close-ups of twisted and tortured bodies, to those of kind hands, sorrowful eyes, and lonely faces, Ramsay’s camera is both unflinching and intimate. This is a melancholic and hypnotic visual experience – one scene shot in the waters of a murky river gives an entirely new meaning to the shape of water – layered atop a jagged narrative that is both deliberately, and powerfully, lacking in poetry or melodrama.
And just like Ramsay’s previous feature: the impressive We Need to Talk about Kevin, You Were Never Really Here is steered by an astounding central performance. The ever-intriguing Joaquin Phoenix strikes a figure of impressive contrast: a towering, bulky stature on the surface, hiding a hollow, frail, and rotting centre– captured with subtle brilliance by a scene involving a crushed green jelly bean. Saying very little – the strength of Ramsay’s film is often in what is not said – Phoenix harbours all the pain, the anger, and the unpredictably of Joe with imposing conviction. If it’s in a look, a glare, or a reflection, Phoenix is the master of enriching character through blank expression; and, here, with untamed head of hair, and hammer in hand, he truly excels.
A dark and disconcerting odyssey; this is one assault on the senses that will have you stewing over for days.