REVIEW: You Were Never Really Here

March 9, 2018

Director: Lynne Ramsay
Screenplay: Lynne Ramsay
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Ekaterina Samsonov, Alex Manette, John Doman, Judith Roberts
Runtime: 90 Minutes




The excellence of Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here is a rare case that is one of those films that its difficult talk about. Not due to the difficulties of its narrative, its content or the nature of what it's about, but because as a constructed piece of visual and aural storytelling it’s basically perfect. Premiering at the 70th Cannes Film Festival in a rough cut, the film as released has been whittled down from its original form into an extraordinarily taught and single-minded exercise of tremendous sensorial power.


Adapted from a novella of the same name by Jonathan Ames, one of the few ways you could describe this is something akin to an arthouse version of Taxi Driver, but one where the protagonist has long since crossed the point of no return and is now struggling to hold onto the threads still tying him to reality.


Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) is the character at the centre of the story, a wandering and stunted soul making a living out of locating and retrieving young girls who have disappeared from home while caring for his elderly mother (a heart-breaking Judith Roberts) in a rundown house in Queens. When tasked by Senator Albert Votto (Alex Manette) to retrieve his missing teenage daughter, Nina (a quietly brilliant performance from newcomer Ekaterina Samsonov), he stumbles into a situation above his reach that quickly follows him back home.


What follows is an odyssey into the mind of a tragic figure, where the many traumas of his past are turned over and glimpsed at like the pages of the books he reads, ones which he then tears out without reason or explanation. Ramsay doesn’t make feature films very often, mostly due to her apparent difficulty to work with those who will seek to compromise her artistic vision. When she does eventually deliver something, the experience is quite extraordinarily unique.


Any other filmmaker would take the hardboiled narrative of a New York hitman and make the generic foundation the playground of a technical exercise. But Ramsey, also credited as screenwriter, sees this as a character study and is far more interested in the mindset of Joe than the carnage he leaves in his wake.


Joe is a brutal individual, not so much a professional in the field as an experienced workman as we follow his routine before the next job. There is no pleasure to be found in the violence on display, and that which is shown is cut around in continuously interesting ways. Many scenes or shots pull away from moments of bloodshed, instead presenting the immediate aftermath of inferred violence, with everything unfolding either just out of frame or refracted through surfaces such as a ceiling mirror. In a stomach-churning sequence, Joe storms a brothel dispatching security with a ball hammer, but it is shown through the cycling CCTV footage of fixed and distorted frames.


Ramsey takes the original text more as a guideline for her own method of storytelling, one which relies heavily on the visuals to convey emotion and meaning more than verbal communication. Very little feels the need to be explained through exposition that would only feel unnatural. More is said of the lingering on a ball hammer swinging on a hardware store shelf, and Joe’s relation of it to his past, than anything that could be spoken. The few lines that do arrive are brief and to the point, and if there’s a soul weakness it’s that the final lines of the film might as well have been as silent as the rest of it for all the good it does. The people Joe speaks to in his day-to-day life already know of his past, and those he meets see all they need to about him from the manner in which Phoenix plays him.


Phoenix’s hulking presence is measured and complex as a nomadic defender, charged by shifting emotions of sweet tenderness and a silent funnel of vengeful wrath. Lost in a constant state of arrest and burdened by personal grief and past experiences, varying from his abusive father to his position a war veteran and former FBI agent clearly suffering from PTSD, the mosaic it makes from his memories glanced through turbulent resurgences of distress places is in the POV of someone who either wants to die, or feels he died long ago.


Ramsey and collaborating editor Joe Bini have cut all the narrative fact and distraction from the feature, right down to its core elements, and present them through Thomas Townend’s splendid cinematography as a vision of someone sleepwalking through their life. The collision between Joe’s inner turmoil and the outside world is exemplified in a moment where he takes a photograph for some young girls, the whole time his mind wandering into deeper recesses as he lowers his bag of equipment to the ground.


All of which plays out to the sound of Jonny Greenwood’s inimitable score of haunting strings, clatters and makeshift sounds. The sound design in general, mixed as the film was being made, fill the film with vibrancy and a state of mind. The merging of sound and image build so much of Joe’s character, as does the use of popular music at certain moments where the humanity of the situation bares itself for moments of undaunted sincerity, where Joe holds the hand of one of his victims and sings with him as he dies, and a transcendently beautiful sequence at a lake where a body is laid to rest.


You Were Never Really Here is a masterfully controlled work from one of cinema’s most arresting and visually prosperous filmmakers, where every signifier or creative decision serves a purpose to its characters more than its drama, and beauty and chaos are mined from the smallest elements of its gaze. A visual poem of richness, intelligence and a deep-rooted empathy for the human condition.


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