UK Release Date: 9th March 2018
Runtime: 90 minutes
Director: Lynne Ramsay
Writer: Lynne Ramsay
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Ekaterina Samsonov, Judith Roberts, Alex Manette, John Doman
Synopsis: A hitman is tasked with retrieving the child of a senator from an abduction ring, but finds himself in the midst of a major conspiracy.
Scottish director Lynne Ramsay doesn’t make films in any great hurry. She was last seen in 2011 with the atmospheric literary adaptation We Need to Talk About Kevin and now, seven years later, she’s mounting another unusual approach to a book in the shape of You Were Never Really Here, adapted from the 2013 Jonathan Ames novella of the same name. It’s a slow-moving thriller with Ramsay’s trademark lack of exposition, punctuated by explosions of violence that are alternately bracing in their grit and shocking in their bizarre sense of other-worldliness.
At the centre of all of that violence is Joe, played by Joaquin Phoenix with presumably the same beard he grew to play Jesus in Mary Magdalene. He is a hired goon, who beats the living daylights out of people with a hammer for anyone who is willing to give him a sack of money. Joe is plagued by disturbing visions of his past, both from the military career he had and his time as an FBI agent, and only softens around his mother (Judith Roberts). He is tasked with retrieving Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov) – the daughter of a senator, who is being held captive by a child abduction ring.
It’s Phoenix who holds You Were Never Really Here together with his stoic, intelligent performance. Joe is believable as a man who operates in the shadows and injures people because that’s all he has ever known. His control over the performance allows for Ramsay to exercise the unusual narrative structure and dreamlike tone that has become her compelling trademark. As with her previous film, though, Ramsay occasionally gets lost in her own ambiguity and the dreamlike tone occasionally slips from engrossing into soporific. It’s a fine line and, for the most part, Ramsay proves herself able to walk it.
Ramsay’s choices throughout the movie are odd, but often inspired. Jonny Greenwood, last seen cruelly missing out on an Oscar for Phantom Thread, delivers another of his delightfully idiosyncratic scores. It’s a bizarre nightmare of an accompaniment, replete with clanging, banging and echoes – like a trip into the tortured psyche of Phoenix’s character. In a similarly evocative way, Ramsay deploys hallucinations and imagined acts of violence to catch her audience off guard and knock them even more off balance than they inevitably already are.
You Were Never Really Here actually does an intriguing job throughout of hiding its brutality, while never lessening the impact. Just as Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre is less explicitly violent than the audience’s memory of it, Ramsay does a similar magic trick here. Much of Joe’s rampages unfold off screen, including one hallway massacre that is one of Ramsay’s many stylistic hat-tips to Taxi Driver, from which the film also borrows elements of its narrative and themes.
For all of its intensity and intelligence, You Were Never Really Here is a strangely alienating movie that never quite pulls the audience into its dark world. Ramsay’s direction has an ebb and flow to it that means there are as many lows as there are highs in the way she allows a story to unfold. With Phoenix and solid child star Ekaterina Samsonov, though, she has assembled two leads who are capable of lifting the project shoulder high by sheer force of performance.
Pop or Poop?
A typically inscrutable performance from Joaquin Phoenix proves to be the highlight of an intriguing, unusual thriller from Lynne Ramsay. You Were Never Really Here suffers slightly from its director’s offbeat tonal choices, but those decisions are also its greatest strength, allowing for a methodical, nightmarish tone to unfold.
Phoenix has admirable support from Ekaterina Samsonov, but even they are not always able to keep this plot moving against the somewhat counter-productive instincts of the filmmaker. When it flies highest and weirdest, though, it hits like a hammer blow straight to the fingers.
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