You Were Never Really Here review: Lynne Ramsay’s tight, 85-minute film is already being referred to as a masterpiece.
You Were Never Really Here review by Orestes Adam.
Less than 24 hours after exiting the cinema and I already envy my past self for being able to presently experience Lynne Ramsay’s gorgeous and deeply disturbing thriller. Since its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival last year, the film has been called many things; namely rushed and incomplete. While it is most certainly short (running at a mere 85 minutes) and is missing much of the direct exposition we as an audience have become conditioned to, Lynne Ramsay’s directorial follow-up to We Need to Talk About Kevin is a work of art just as poetic, experimental, brutal and visceral to a 21st century audience as Taxi Driver was to the 70s.
Adapted from the novella of the same name by Jonathan Ames, You Were Never Really Here follows the story of Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), an Afghan war veteran who makes his living as a hammer-wielding hitman, specializing in saving children from sex traffickers. The plot, when laid bare, is rather simple, and even predictable: Joe rescues a senator’s daughter (Ekaterina Samsonov) from a high-class child sex racket only for her traffickers to abduct her back and consequently hunt down Joe and everyone he cares for. However, where Lynne Ramsay’s auteurist touch separates this film from most generic hired gun flicks is her choice to focus more on the man than the hit itself. You Were Never Really Here is ultimately a character study, exploring the contradictions and dualities that make up the life that is Joe’s. Is he a hero for saving children from continued abuse or is he a monster for the manner in which he eviscerates his opponents? You can see that he refrains from defining himself as either, himself a tortured soul from a young age. His trauma is ambiguous as Ramsey chooses to show us only brief snippets from the defining moments of his life; the sight of children dying in Afghanistan and the abuse both he and his mother received from his father as a boy, all of which have given him an extreme suicide fantasy that comprises both some of the film’s most shocking and serene moments.
Joaquin Phoenix is spellbinding in his portrayal of Joe, constantly looking like he’s just awoken from a nightmare and struggling to get through life one miserable moment at a time. You get the sense that he’s impatiently waiting for it all to be over, and the film brilliantly and surreally conveys that if he were to die at any given moment no one would be affected in the slightest. Having said that, he does share some endearing moments, namely with his mother, who appears to be the last person he can maintain his innocence in front of. One of the film’s most tender moments occurs halfway through when Joe lies next to his dying assailant and holds his hand, singing along to a pop song playing on the radio. We get the sense that what Joe is really desperate for is companionship, and what better place to find that than another who kills for a living?
Ramsay’s characterization is primarily visual. We see the scars on Joe’s body but receive no explanation as to how they got there. We hardly even see Joe in action, as she chooses rather to imply his gruesomeness rather than show it outright. Even when she does in one particular scene, Joe’s actions are filtered through a security camera, as if an attempt to protect the audience from his primal brutality. We spend more time with Joe in between his jobs instead of at them, showing us how a man who has seen the worst things in life imaginable (war, domestic abuse, child sex slavery) carries himself from one place to another. Johnny Greenwood’s score accompanies this phenomenally, maintaining an escalating pace whilst simultaneously conveying the discord of Joe’s shattered life.
In 85 minutes, Lynne Ramsay packs in more visual information than can be found in most films over 2 hours long. You’ll wish for the ability to pause particular frames just to gawk at their splendor, but this is a film that won’t let you revel in anything for long. It’s a frenetic character study that just so happens to be one of the most beautiful films of the year, focusing on an anti-hero who is neither glamourised nor redeemed. Like the film’s narrative, he is only broken, and I mean that in the most mesmerizing way.
You Were Never Really Here review by Orestes Adam, October 2017.