You Were Never Really Here

Review by Hannah Woodhead @goodjobliz

Directed by

Lynne Ramsay

Starring

Dante Pereira-Olson Joaquin Phoenix Larry Canady

Anticipation.

Phoenix and Ramsay and Greenwood, together at last. Oh my!

Enjoyment.

A cinematic sucker punch.

In Retrospect.

Ramsay delivers a devastating blow.

Joaquin Phoenix and director Lynne Ramsay combine forces to deliver a sensational cinematic sucker punch.

Lynne Ramsay likes to take her time. In the space of 18 years she’s only made four feature films, the last of which – We Need to Talk About Kevin – was released what feels like a lifetime ago back in 2011. She almost made a female-fronted western called Jane Got a Gun, but considering how that one turned out, it was probably best that she scarpered early on.

Finally our patience has been paid dividends, as Ramsay teams up with Joaquin Phoenix for the first time to deliver a brutal masterclass in sensory overload. Based on the novella of the same name by Jonathan Ames, You Were Never Really Here might have taken its time, but it is unequivocally worth the wait.

Marrying brutality with a curious gentleness, Phoenix’s Joe is an ex-marine turned hitman who carries out retrieval operations across America, periodically returning to New York to check in on his elderly mother. Tasked with rescuing a teenage girl from a sex trafficking ring, things take a turn for the worst when he realises how deep the rabbit hole goes. Joe leads a solitary life which we glean through glimpses. His demons are nestled deep but claw constantly beneath his skin.

He’s unflinching and harsh, yet seems somehow afraid to disturb the atoms that surround him when he doesn’t have a hammer in his hand and murder on his mind. There’s no better fit for the role than Phoenix, who presents Joe as simultaneously vulnerable and impervious, a solid mass riddled with keloid scars that tell a story his voice cannot. Far from being a Dolph Lundgren-esque hired hard man, Joe’s a fully-realised vision, the embodiment of internalised trauma cast adrift in a world he’s come to see only in black and white.

In contrast, the film sings with colour: the siennas and ochres of a city skyline at sunset; the purple halo of a fading bruise; the lush green lawns of a suburban mansion. Everything is amplified only to the extent of fine tuning, inviting you to notice details that might otherwise escape the eye. Ramsay’s violence is never gratuitous or overstated, and beautifully rendered shots of Joaquin’s weathered body remind the audience the film is much more a character study than anything else. It’s a haunting glimpse into a frayed psyche shaped by years of relentless horror, from childhood abuse to wartime hell.

With a lean runtime of 85 minutes, Ramsay has shaved all possible fat from the bone, leaving behind only the raw, sinewy morsels. A lingering moment of softness amid the chaos shows Joe fussing over his friend’s cat, providing a glimpse of something gentle peeking out from behind the brute force, but the moment is fleeting. Respite is only ever temporary before you’re thrown face-first into the concrete, sent reeling by Jonny Greenwood’s electrifying, unsettling score, a different animal from the searing strings of his past composition work.

There’s always been a sense about Ramsay that she doesn’t pour half measures. Being selective with her projects ensures each one is a perfectly-crafted visceral experience that shoots straight for your gut. You don’t watch a Ramsay film – you’re consumed by it. You Were Never Really Here is the greatest testament to that.

Published 7 Mar 2018

Tags: Joaquin Phoenix Lynne Ramsay

Anticipation.

Phoenix and Ramsay and Greenwood, together at last. Oh my!

Enjoyment.

A cinematic sucker punch.

In Retrospect.

Ramsay delivers a devastating blow.

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