Writer/director Lynne Ramsay is an underrated British talent to say the least. A devotedly challenging filmmaker, Ramsay has wowed with the dark drama of films such as We Need to Talk About Kevin and Morvern Callar in the recent past. But with You Were Never Really Here, she opts for something akin to Nicolas Winding Refn’s masterwork, Drive: a seedy thriller seething with rage, You Were Never Really Here is a film that offers up a complex and conflicted male protagonist in the form of Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), whose tormented psyche perpetuates the film’s bleak, violent narrative.
This narrative finds Joe in the midst of an assignment. As a hired enforcer, he’s known for his unflinching brutality, something that is on full display in the film’s tacit opening. His next job? Rescuing the abducted daughter (Ekaterina Samsonov) of a New York politician (Alex Manette). While it would appear to be a simple grab-and-go operation, it calls for a more forceful hand, one that Joe neglectfully obliges: see, Joe is shadowed by the demons of his past – his abusive father, his tours in the Army, his time as an FBI agent – memories founded in viciousness that fuel his anger and ruthlessness. Yet there is still hope, embodied in a tenderness he displays whilst caring for his mother (Judith Roberts), keeping him at finger’s length from self-destruction.
It’s this exploration of one man’s suffering, based in a philosophy he has known his whole life – violence begets violence – that surprised me most with You Were Never Really Here. Through mystifyingly brief cuts to images of Joe’s past, a harsh yet melancholy score from Jonny Greenwood and an overwhelming soundtrack that intensifies the everyday noise that we’re used to, Ramsay crafts a fascinating technical scape for the senses that tragically communicates the complex nature of Joe’s grief. Like Joe, we crave and cherish the moments of respite that we obtain when in the company of Joe’s mother, holding us back from a descent into madness that appears uncontrollable and inevitable. It’s this clever play on catharsis, as Ramsay flits between offering it and denying it, that I admire most about the film.
However, You Were Never Really Here is unmercifully short in length. Clocking in at 90 minutes, this unfortunately left me feeling a little thirsty for more. Ramsay is deliberately elusive, refusing us the answers that we’d like: as I claim, this is an unconventional approach to a thriller and one that is, rather contradictorily, welcomed by me. Nevertheless, Ramsay deals us a number of stark, chilling sequences towards the end of the film that, without giving much away, demand an emotional engagement. And yet, without the necessary time to grow fully accustomed to Joe and his tragic backstory, I didn’t feel as connected to the film’s conclusion as Ramsay would no doubt have wanted.
Phoenix’s performance is strong, nevertheless. While he’s helped along by Ramsay’s technical evocation of Joe’s brewing tempestuousness, Phoenix still conveys the right amount of buried emotion to induce a feeling of sympathy for a man who, through his actions, could have appeared somewhat amoral. One particular scene in a bedroom towards the end of the film is a standout, featuring a Joe who is suddenly starting to unravel, wreathing with unbearable emotion: Phoenix does a good job of easing out this sentiment, delicately handling a sequence that could have felt clichéd and overplayed.
You Were Never Really Here is a beautiful film, in spite of its brutality. Thomas Townend’s cinematography inspires comparison to Michael Chapman’s haunting work in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, interlacing with Ramsay’s meditative direction to fashion a dilapidated urban world that still offers the possibility of redemption. And it’s this emphasis on possibility that is key to interpreting the film: how do we handle anguish, put an end to violence, or simply, is there a way forward? These are important questions and Ramsay is reluctant to stamp a seal of resolution on any of them. This might prove frustrating for some, particularly when one considers the film’s appeal to emotional feedback that it doesn’t quite earn. But the craft is superlative, proving that Ramsay is still as fresh and engaging in her visual and aural storytelling as ever. With a little more content, this might well have been a masterpiece. As it stands, it’s a contemplative exploration of the male psyche that is certainly worthy of your consideration.