Scottish director Lynne Ramsay has only made four films in twenty years. Various road-bumps have stopped her from being more prolific - she was attached to The Lovely Bones before Peter Jackson took over, and there was the infamous fall-out over Jane Got a Gun - but the tiny filmography she possesses is one of the most impressive in modern film-making. Now, seven years after We Need To Talk About Kevin, she returns with an astounding achievement that proudly takes its place as the best film of the year (so far).
You Were Never Really Here, loosely adapted from the novella by Jonathan Ames, stars Joaquin Phoenix as a former Marine turned hit-man for hire whose specialty is extracting trafficked girls from brothels. Noted for his brutality, and preferred weapon of a hammer, he takes on the most dangerous jobs with ruthless abandon before returning to his mundane existence with his mother. Scarred, suicidal and plagued by post-traumatic stress, he struggles to get through the day. Joe takes on a new job, saving a State Senator’s kidnapped daughter (Ekaterina Samsonov) that quickly goes horribly wrong, leaving a trail of destruction in its path.
Describing the plot of the movie - such as it is - is a futile task. The elevator pitch makes it sound like the A-plot to an early season episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. The story is thin, just enough to fill the film’s scant 85 minutes running time, but it’s also beside the point. You Were Never Really Here is an exploration of character and images, and what it presents is a hellish descent into the psyche of a man who is struggling to keep going.
Ramsay, a former photographer, is one of the most visually literate film-makers working today. She packs the film with these subtle moments of style and strangeness that quietly add up to show the splintering mind of Joe: The hanging items on sale at the hardware store; the gasping agony of Joe asphyxiating himself with a plastic bag; the most insidious squashing of a Jelly Bean you’ve ever seen. Out of their context, they seem pointless, or style over substance, but Ramsay is smarter than that. This is a film that exposes the trappings of the action genre by revealing how simultaneously mundane and upsetting it really is.
If you go into You Were Never Really Here thinking it’s the arthouse Taken or 21st century Taxi Driver the marketing is selling it as, you may be disappointed. I prefer to think of it more as the alternate universe Logan: A bearded hero whose physical and moral strength is failing him tries to save a young girl who is more than the cipher he perceives her to be. Even then, that doesn’t really do it justice. Every time you think the film is going to go one way or jump straight into familiar territory, it takes a sharp turn in a new direction.
The film is brutal, but the violence itself is never shown. We see glimpses of it through distant lenses, and the grizzly aftermath, but the audience is deliberately left to fill in the gaps themselves. The camera doesn’t dwell on Phoenix beating the shit out of paedophiles with a hammer. Instead, it’s more concerned with showing Joe’s efficiency. There’s no artistry to his technique, but why would you need it when a swift bash to the head does the trick? One key scene captures the action, for lack of a better term, through CCTV footage, and it’s far more haunting than a mere hallway brawl would ever be. There’s no grace or dignity to being the action hero in this. Ultimately, there’s an accompanying impotence to masculinity.
Saying that Joaquin Phoenix is good in a movie is hardly the surprise of the century, but even by his consistently high standards, this performance is a new peak of excellence for him. There are few actors working today who can convey so much through posture alone. Joe’s body is battered and twisted through trauma, bulky but still immense, and Phoenix wears that weight in every scene. He barely says a thing throughout the film - I’ve a theory that the more Phoenix mumbles in a movie, the better it is, so this is verging on masterpiece territory - and you don’t need to hear any of it. His endlessly expressive face says it all. Amidst the violence, there are sweet moments shared with his mother (Judith Roberts, the beautiful woman across the hall in Eraserhead), where you sense his genuine love for her but also the irritation of being a middle-aged man who still lives with her. It’s sadly not the kind of film that garners massive amounts of awards - although he did, much to his own surprise, win Best Actor last year at Cannes - which is a shame because the layers of this performance deserve endless acclaim.
But this is Ramsay’s film through and through. Her direction - part punk rock, part 70’s arthouse - teeters precariously on the verge of nightmare and makes you feel like you’ve fallen into a hallucination. Stripped almost entirely of exposition, Joe’s back-story comes to us in invasive bursts, akin to the noise that must be going on in his head. You get the feeling that she would have made this a dialogue-free movie if she could, although there are genius moments involving music. Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead fame, fresh off his first Oscar nomination for Phantom Thread, provides a score of industrial grunge that’s pitch-perfect for the film. There are also brilliant scenes involving diegetic songs that both unnerve and elicit awkward laughs. Special shout outs must also go to editor Joe Bini, who slices this movie with scalpel-like precision, and cinematographer Tom Townend, for making this film look equal parts majestic and horrific.
It’s hard to recommend this film to everyone, as singularly excellent as it is, because it’s a story of scars and depravity that’s hard for even seasoned film-goers to stomach. Yet, for those prepared for the journey, this is an immensely rewarding experience that truly lingers in your mind. Harrowing but not without hope, expertly directed and helmed by one of the year’s great performances, You Were Never Really Here will stick with you for a very long time.
You Were Never Really Here is currently out in UK cinemas. It will be released in the United States on the 6th April.