When it comes to a new film from a genre which spits out ten a penny, it’s refreshing to see a filmmaker attempting to create something different. Lynne Ramsay‘s You Were Never Really Here (2018) is one of those films. A film that comes across as a love letter to 1970’s crime thrillers. Starring Joaquin Phoenix, is this a film that is a character study of a man beyond saving? Is his character emulating the spirit of Travis Bickle? Possibly.
Based on a novella of the same name by Jonathan Emes, Phoenix stars as Joe, a man of very few words and lets his job do the talking. We find ourselves in New York, Joe is a hired gun, tormented soul with so many inner demons to grapple with. He is approached by an upcoming Senator who wants Joe to rescue his missing teenage daughter. He believes she is been held by sex traffickers and in the middle of the rescue things start to go wrong. This unleashes a storm of conspiracy, violence, and vengeance turning into a nightmare for Joe.
Joe is a curious fellow. On the job, he’s a brutal unflinching beast, however when he drops his weapon of choice (the hammer)he’s a gentle caring man. He cares for his senile mother (Judith Roberts).
There is a scene when Joe is in the shower, we can see his body is full of scars. Every scar tells a story and throughout the film, flashbacks reveal how got some of them. He is a War veteran who is also a PTSD Sufferer, but he’s plagued by the abuse he received as a child. We also learn he treats death like a sexual fetish, dicing with death with self-asphyxiation, knife games, and suicidal thoughts.
Joaquin Phoenix is a perfect choice as our troubled protagonist. Vulnerable, unable to set free his feelings, holding the pain back for his targets. Some critics didn’t like Phoenix’s constant mumbling. Personally, it didn’t hinder his performance if anything it gave his character an extra level inculpability. He was like that child hiding something when getting told off, his mindset is still like that abused child.
You Were Never Really Here was released cinematically, many critics called it ‘This Generation’s Taxi Driver’. This is now been adopted by its distributor Studiocanal and yes there are similarities. Lead characters which are ‘loners’ suffering from mental health issues. Joe bonds well with Nina the young girl he rescues which echoes Robert DeNiro’s with the young Jodie Foster. Ekaterina Samsonov plays Nina and she quickly sees him as a Father figure or even as ‘big brother’. Eerily silent whilst she resonant with him on every level, highlighting ‘her abuse’ was closer to home.
It’s amazing to think this is only the fourth film in the Scottish filmmaker’s filmography, all richly rewarding including this one. Some say she is very fussy when choosing projects and when she picks its visual poetry at its best. Never conforming to the so-called rules of the genre to create her own distinctive style.
One could argue the film is like a therapy session for Joe. We sit back and witness his unraveling and him drowning in his pain and turmoil. There is one particular scene reflects this notion. But is Joe someone who is beyond help? There is a hallucinatory /dreamlike tone to the film makes you wonder ‘Were we really here’?
Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood score is wonderful. A sensory overload, which is infectious, intense and with help from Paul Davies the overall sound design leaves you disorientated.
You Were Never Really Here is Ramsay’s most accessible film to date with a running time of only 85 minutes. It’s a film with flaws but if your willing to see behind them you will get a tense, complexed, visceral experience. One that will gut punch you at every chance it will get.
Paul Devine | ★★★★
Mystery, Thriller | UK, 2017 | 15 | 2nd July 2018 (UK BD, DVD) | Studiocanal | Dir.Lynne Ramsay | Joaquin Phoenix, Ekaterina Samsonov, Alex Manette, John Doman, Judith Roberts
Originally posted at The Peoples Movies | 29th June 2018