For those looking for an indie thriller with an art-house feel and New Hollywood references, look no further – Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here hits the magic spot (filled last year by the Safdie Brothers’s Good Time), and shows yet again that a film can be formally bold without giving the finger to traditional narrative.
Joe (an almost unrecognisable Joaquin Phoenix) is a war veteran that lives alone with his elderly mother. Traumatised by early life events and everything he saw while on duty, he exorcises his demons by hunting children fiddlers and terminating them with extreme prejudice. When he is given the job of rescuing a politician’s daughter from a brothel, he ends up involved in a government level conspiracy that will change his life forever and test his limits…
You Were Never Really Here gains immensely the least you know about it before watching. Director Ramsey takes her cue from Scorsese and Winding Refn and presents violence with a hard to swallow realism, but we’re not exactly speaking about gore – just like in her previous film, We Need to Talk About Kevin, violence is mostly implied, and rarely shown. The way Joe’s entry in the brothel building is shown – all through security cameras, one cutting after another, like boring CCTV – is nothing short of phenomenal. The end scene at the dinner – The Graduate anyone? – dares to cut through the tension with exceptional black humour. And black humour is also present in a certain kitchen floor death scene, as a classic song serves to yet again slap the audience in the face with unease and a smile.
With a screeching and unsettling soundtrack by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, and a narrative structure polluted by flashbacks that are never completely explained or clarified, the audience may at points wonder what is real and what is not, and how much of a reliable narrator is Joe, popping pills like candy, blocking certain moments from our view. Nothing in his life is completely devoid from tension – even his sweet and caring relation with his mother is tainted by constant Psycho references and an uncertainty about what the hell happened during his childhood.
Phoenix’s performance is visceral and provocative – and so much more than the physical transformations he went through to play Joe. Managing to make us care for an extreme violent man, he is the charismatic lighthouse that keeps us going during the film’s first half hour, when we are as disoriented as the protagonist about what the hell is going on. Don’t expect spoon feeding, keep your eyes on the screen and pay attention to details – and you’ll be in for a very satisfying bitter sweet ending.
An intense character study based on the book by Jonathan Ames, You Were Never Really Here is gruesome, intelligent and indelible. A must-watch.
You Were Never Really Here is in UK cinemas from 9th March 2018.