Director Lynne Ramsay may not be prolific but, since her stunning 1999 debut, Ratcatcher, her handful of feature films have highlighted her commitment to the telling of unusual and difficult stories about characters you may not wish to spend too much time with. That she does so with her singular style is wondrous but the fact that she makes you care about these people is remarkable and, with You Were Never Really Here, she’s perfected her craft.
Joaquin Phoenix plays Joe, a man with a traumatic past. His army and police background have made him tough enough to make him an effective hitman, desensitised enough not to care, yet moral enough to know when he’s doing the right thing. As such, he specialises in rescuing the young girls of wealthy, influential parents from child sex traffic rings. When the rescue of a politician’s daughter goes wrong, a conspiracy opens up and Joe’s descent into an ever more corrupt world brings some deadly consequences.
In the hands of other filmmakers, this could have become just another violent, conspiracy-driven, twists and turns thriller, and those elements are certainly there, but Ramsay’s interest lies with Joe – all else is background. We’re often on the edge of plot, just outside incident. We see the film pretty much through Joe’s perspective, one which is fuelled by anti-depressants, trauma, grief and repression but with bursts of compassion.
In the lead role, Phoenix has rarely been better; his great hulking frame of muscle and fat often dominating the screen. There’s a world of pain going on behind those eyes and yet, in scenes such as those featuring his sick and ageing mother or the girl he rescues, we know Joe cares. Similarly, one extraordinary scene sees him lie with a man he’s just shot and fatally injured, holding his hand, gently singing along with the radio until he dies. It’s bizarre, compelling and almost beautiful.
You Were Never Really Here is a brutal film. You’ll certainly flinch more than once, sometimes at what you think you might see rather than what you do. But then, there are some very disturbing images, as well as some of astonishing beauty. Beautiful and disturbing also describes Johnny Greenwood’s incredible score, one which includes electronic beats and the sounds of the city to create surreal soundscapes which, with Ramsay’s visual flair, creates a dreamlike, hallucinatory feel.
Sadly, whilst the quality of the film on Blu-ray is spectacular, the virtual lack of extras is far from tremendous, something laughingly called From Book to Film turning out to be about a minute long snatch of red carpet interviews.YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE / DIRECTOR: LYNNE RAMSAY / SCREENPLAY: LYNNE RAMSAY / STARRING: JOAQUIN PHOENIX, JUDITH ROBERTS, EKATERINA SAMSONOV, JOHN DOMAN / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW