Rating: 5 out of 5 (Classic)
Director: Lynne Ramsay
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Ekaterina Samsonov, John Doman
Synopsis: Adapted from the Jonathan Ames’ novel of the same name, traumatised combat veteran Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) trawls New York’s underbelly looking for young girls snatched into paedophile sex rings. Tasked with finding a senator’s daughter, Joe comes unstuck as a routine rescue spirals into something far worse.
This film is an unexpected gut punch, a visceral sting of sudden and stunningly powerful twists and events which leave you dazed and breathless. Knowing the context before watching You Were Never Really Here will provide little respite for the following 90 minutes. The film’s dark setting is a quagmire of quicksand as the plot plunges deeper into the darkness of mankind.
The thrall of You Were Never Really Here is due to what does and does not happen. From Man on Fire to the upcoming Sicario sequel, the Hollywood conveyor belt has issued reiterations of the urban western. Even if you have not spotted the overlaps, so many ‘hard-boiled’ thrillers centre around a grizzled cowboy in a dark world who finds redemption in a young daughter figure. Joe may be quiet and grizzled, but he is not the Gary Cooper type Tony Soprano used to lament over. Joe’s demeanour belies a broken man whose life has been a march of pain through trauma which haunts him in jarring bursts like a looping record. Violence is prevalent but there are no slick action sequences or any ghoulish obsession with gore that marks Tarantino’s recent films. When it comes, violence is served in the Hitchcockian style, absently indirect. It happens beyond our vision while the worst acts are stumbled upon by Joe. Ramsay’s suggestive approach to these scenes are made more powerful by a tenderness that Joe sometimes exhibits, which I do not think a male director would ever consider. It was Joe’s empathy that I found the most disconcerting, especially when he lays down next to a dying man. Watching this film never feels comfortable, because nothing can be predicted and that is its power. When You Were Never Really Here ends there is no happiness, no catharsis in the manner we have come so expectant of.
Exiled from the real world and even himself, Joe is the ‘you’ in You Were Never Really Here, and it it Lynne Ramsay’s camera that tells this tale. The camera picks between bouts of seeing the world from Joe’s perspective to distanced shots of him amid New York. Joe’s flashbacks are incomplete frames and close cuts, while in the present the camera is either obscured or observing from afar as he brutally attacks anyone who crosses him. Close-ups, point of view shots, and wide frames are simple tools for the filmmaker, but Lynne Ramsay uses them masterfully to imprint her voice onto You Were Never Really Here. Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood’s original score is in complete unison with Ramsay’s vision. Amid the madness and violence of You Were Never Really Here, Greenwood’s songs can bring tears even at the darkest points.
For a film anchored around his performance, Joaquin Phoenix does not disappoint. In both his wardrobe and appearance he is Joe. Contrasting the chiselled mid-riffs we see litter the action genre, Phoenix has transformed himself into Joe but not as an attempt to help Men’s Health magazine sales. Phoenix looks strong, but like a man who once served in the army, carrying the extra weight of a someone who was once more active. Phoenix says little throughout the film, but his face exudes an unaware vulnerability that can’t be hidden by his straggled hair or limping gait. It is this visible pain that makes Joe such an interesting and sympathetic character, no matter what he does.
By Saul Shimmin
For the trailer, see below: