After her 2011 breakthrough film We Need to Talk About Kevin, writer-director Lynne Ramsay was set to sink her teeth into her next project Jane Got a Gun. However, futile attempts to stifle her creativity led to her walkout. Based on Jonathan Ames’ novella of the same name, You Were Never Really Here became Ramsay’s fourth feature. A daring thriller that’s as uncompromising as the masterful film-maker behind it.
A disorientating opening scene provides a glimpse into our antihero’s fractured mind. Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) is left traumatised by the horrors of war and haunted by the childhood abuse he suffered at the hands of his father. Now Joe’s a hired gun, specialising in recovering missing children. He’s hired by Senator Votto (Alex Manette) to retrieve his young daughter Nina (an otherworldly Ekaterina Samsonov) from a brothel and while doing so becomes entangled in a deadly conspiracy.
Phoenix dominates each frame with his stocky physique that’s aching with pain, along with his piercing eyes that glisten with raw intensity. As he prowls through the night hunting predators, often with bloody hands, Joe fits the description of a ruthless enforcer. However, we witness a gentler side to him as paternal instincts kick in and while doting on his fragile mother (Judith Roberts), their playfully tender bond is genuinely touching.
While dicing with death is an occupational hazard for Joe, he also willingly flirts with danger. Dangling a dagger above his open mouth and partaking in a game of knife throwing at his own bare feet. Joe’s harrowing past dictates his detached existence, shaping his future into a ghost story. As the film’s title suggests, both his scarred shell and tortured mind leaves little trace as he wanders the city streets. When Joe’s violent work spills over into his personal life with disastrous consequences, his demise momentarily becomes a welcome refuge. Until a beautiful awakening reignites his will to live.
You Were Never Really Here could have easily fallen down a rabbit hole of genre clichés in the hands of any other film-maker. While there are shades of Taxi Driver, Léon: The Professional and Drive, the film is unmistakably Ramsay’s own. Playing out like one of Joe’s hallucinations, we’re fed scraps of his past that we’re to piece together and only shown what’s absolutely necessary as the story unfolds. This efficiency is present in all of Ramsay’s films but is never executed mechanically. Her work is always fluid, poetry in motion with an exceptional attention to detail.
From the abrasive delicacy of Ratcatcher to the dreamlike escapism of Morvern Callar and unforeseen parallels within We Need to Talk About Kevin. You Were Never Really Here is Ramsay’s most fiercely lean film yet, a tightly drawn character study of a fading wraith. Bursting with pinpoint accuracies, a hammer and the tormented soul armed with it is indeed “Made in the USA”.
Thomas Townend’s mesmerising cinematography not only magnifies Ramsay’s flair for intricacies but skillfully showcases both the brutality and beauty of the film. Joe’s animalistic movements and violent rampages are captured by stalking Joe through the lens of a surveillance camera, while another brawl is witnessed from the vantage point of an overhead mirror. Whereas fleeting interludes from the ongoing carnage, such as a breathtaking underwater realisation of redemption, erupt with hypnotic grace.
The film’s alive with Jonny Greenwood’s thumping score. Providing a pulse that’s kept in rhythm with a young Joe eerily whispering his childhood coping method of counting backwards. Paul Davies’ destabilising sound design is effectively overwhelming, contributing to the unsettling assault of the film.
Continuing to prove herself as one of the most ferociously distinct directors working today, Lynne Ramsay is an incredibly fearless film-maker who should remain untamed.