Director: Lynne Ramsay
Screenplay: Lynne Ramsay
Based on the Book by: Jonathan Ames
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Judith Roberts, Ekaterina Samsonov, John Doman, Alex Manette
Country: UK, France
Running Time: 89 min
BBFC Certificate: 15
Lynne Ramsay has hardly been a prolific director, with only four feature credits to her name during the 19 years she’s been making them. However, each film she’s leant her hand to has been well received by critics, from her superb debut Ratcatcher to her unusual and blackly comic adaptation of the novel We Need to Talk About Kevin. So it’s a pleasure to see one of Britain’s finest current directors return to the screen with the similarly critically adored You Were Never Really Here.
The film sees Joaquin Phoenix play Joe, a hitman/hired gun who specialises in rescuing missing children and teenagers in brutal fashion. He’s deeply disturbed and constantly plagued by visions of his own tormented childhood and time spent fighting with the military in the Middle East. He cuts himself off from the rest of the world, other than his elderly mother who he cares for when he’s not out butchering bad guys. His lifestyle and memories are causing him to reach the end of his tether though and he constantly toys with suffocating himself and playing with knives. His latest job however, to rescue the daughter of a New York senator from an underground sex ring, gives him a strange sense of purpose, particularly after the mission takes a painfully personal turn.
You Were Never Really Here is a stripped back and abstract take on what, on the surface, sounds like a cliched genre movie. Ramsay, in a very brief interview included on this disc, said she wanted to try something different and see what she could do with the material (originally a book written by Jonathan Ames). There’s not a lot here in terms of plot, instead Ramsay keeps focus almost solely on the protagonist, Joe, and his fractured mind. Hitmen with a heart or a troubled childhood are hardly anything new, but rarely has such a character been examined so intensely with a raw, disorientating and often uncomfortable style. Joe’s in practically every scene and often shot in close up, bringing us into his mind so to speak, along with a lot of brief flashbacks that are never fully fleshed out but clear enough to give the audience the required context.
This singular approach would never work without a strong lead performance and the ever reliable Phoenix delivers this in spades. He truly seems to be living the character as Joe lumbers about in a semi-comatose stupor, only snapping out of it when he needs to hurt somebody. He’s not a completely empty shell though. There’s just enough heart there, lurking under the surface, to help the audience sympathise with this troubled but not all that likeable or relatable character. The touching, but never sentimental scenes with Joe’s mother help achieve this too.
Ramsay isn’t only concerned with creating a character piece though. She also seems to be deconstructing the hitman/revenge thriller or heroic action movie. Much like other genre subversions such as McCabe and Mrs. Miller, the film takes common traits you might expect from thrillers with a similar setup and spins them on their head or avoids them all together. A clear example of this comes in the action scenes, if you can call them that. Ramsay rarely shows Joe killing in clear detail. It’s usually just out of shot or presented on a grainy CCTV camera. We sometimes see the bloody aftermath, but rarely the actual act. A little like in Funny Games, the director is forcing the audience to think about why they watch such films and what they expect from them. There’s also an unusual connection between Joe and one of his victims at one point which is simultaneously bizarre and touching.
Cinematically speaking it’s excellent too. It’s beautifully shot without looking overly stylised or artificial. The editing is also highly effective, creating a disorientating and fractured atmosphere mirroring the mind of the protagonist. Equally as impressive as the visuals is the film’s sound. The hugely talented Jonny Greenwood provides an incredible abstract score that’s as offbeat and intense as the film as a whole. On top of this you’ve got some unusual sound design full of the white noise of often indecipherable whispers and accentuated sound effects within a scene.
It’s a film that won’t be for everyone. Because most of the genre tropes here are subverted or avoided, those looking for cheap thrills will be disappointed. It’s certainly more of an art house film than a crowd-pleaser. It has some minor flaws too. Personally I thought the last couple of lines in the film were too on the nose and not necessary for instance. Some have called the film shallow and slight too, and I can maybe see where they’re coming from, but I thought the sparseness was one of the film’s strong points. It’s part of how Ames and Ramsay are deconstructing the action revenge genre. It also provides space to cast your own ideas as to what the film is really about and who these characters are. I thought You Were Never Really Here was excellent and it’s further proof that Ramsay is one of Britain’s leading cinematic lights. If only she’d make films a little more regularly!
You Were Never Really Here is out now on digital download and on Blu-Ray, DVD and VOD in the UK, released by Studiocanal. I saw the Blu-Ray version and the film looks and sounds fantastic. Unfortunately there’s only one special feature included on the disc though and that’s a 1 minute featurette on translating the book to the screen. At that length it’s obviously not particularly enlightening.