The plot for You Were Never Really Here would work well as a Jason Statham movie. Joe is a fixer, played by Joaquin Phoenix, who specialises in finding people and has a reputation for being “brutal” is hired by a senator to find his missing daughter. He finds the child sex traffickers, takes them out and frees the girl. Only his getaway may not have been as clean as he thought.
It’s surprising then that this is in fact the new feature from Lynne Ramsay, the brilliant director behind the equally haunting We Need to Talk About Kevin. The film reminded me of Drive, and not just because of Phoenix’s fondness for white jackets and hammers. Ramsay’s style is absolutely perfect for a dark story about an unhinged man hoping for peace but excelling only in war.
Phoenix’s character, Joe, is deeply troubled by various past traumas that are only hinted at through vivid and disturbing glimpses. These glimpses and the way Joe acts suggest a huge back story that is richly drawn without a single word of exposition. As his mental state deteriorates the film becomes more abstract and the truth becomes harder to discern.
Ramsay has a very eloquent solution to making the violence shocking to a jaded audience. She denies us the actual acts. Numerous times a shot begins with Phoenix walking away from the gruesome remains of his last victim. The horrific act is left to our imagination. The few times she does choose to show the action, it is brutal and shocking, which only makes worse the implied acts we are not shown. Beyond the violence, there is an even greater darkness that menacingly threatens the borders of the narrative. Much of the broader scope of what is happening to Joe is left unsaid, which creates a very ominous sense of dread, reminiscent of Ben Wheatley’s Kill List.
Moments of tenderness are as surprising as the barbarism. The scenes between Joe and his mother are wonderfully charming, only more so for the darkness that surrounds the rest of the film. One particular moment of handholding was shocking in its simple humanity.
Johnny Greenwood’s soundtrack is similar to his work for Paul Thomas Anderson only in their shared peculiarity. This is a far more frightening and intense work. The lines between soundtrack and sound within the world of the film are often blurred, giving us further reason to doubt what we are experiencing.
You Were Never Really Here is very much like Drive. It’s a violent, gorgeously stylish thriller that’s as intelligent as it is exciting. It manages to be shockingly stark and beguilingly elusive. I sincerely hope the wait for the next Lynn Ramsay project is much shorter because she has once again proven herself to be a unique screenwriter/director capable of momentous works.
5 / 5
Paul Salt is the co-host of One Good Thing.