I still get chills when I think of Lynne Ramsey’s last feature film, We Need To Talk About Kevin, released eight years ago and once again she delivers a hauntingly tense and brutal modern noir with a customarily brilliant performance from one of the best actors currently working, Joaquin Phoenix, who took Best Actor at the latest Cannes Film Festival alongside Ramsey winning Best Screenplay which is even more impressive considering there isn’t an abundance of dialogue. Full of eerily abstract imagery which along with the increasingly disturbing bloodshed create a dreamlike thriller that lingers in your mind long after you leave your screening. Reminiscent yet utterly divergent to Taxi Driver and oddly enough Drive, Ramsey’ usual themes of grief, pain and mental fragility are present and while the film in the hands of a different director could have been much more conventional, in Ramsey’s hands she laughs in the face of what is expected.
We follow sullen neurotic anti-hero Joe (Phoenix), a former soldier with quite severe PTSD, unnerving fragmented flashbacks included. A man of few words who looks after his senile mother in his childhood home, a place of great trauma for Joe. By night however Joe is a gun (or hammer) for hire including rescuing trafficked children for distraught parents who aren’t too keen to involve the police. Joe’s method, trusty claw hammer by his side, is horrifically brutal but undoubtedly effective. His latest mission is to recover the missing daughter, Nina, of a wealthy New York Senator by any means necessary. Joe is very capable physically, despite numerous scars but mentally it’s another story. Joe is a broken man who struggles to comes to terms with his traumatic past and now just wades in an almost hallucinogenic state through his onerous work. We never get the full picture on Joe’s past abuse but we’re given enough through appropriately harsh editing and cuts that are almost as violent as Joe himself. Phoenix is in captivating form in a role that isn’t given much introspective dialogue but still you feel his haunted past in his icy expressions and Phoenix does so much with so little and it is definitely one of my favourite performances of the year so far.
Reuniting again with composer (and Radiohead lead guitarist) Jonny Greenwood, Ramsey’s choice is quickly justified. The music accompanies the abrupt editing perfectly as a whirlwind of spectral percussion and pulsating sound design. Thomas Townend’s cinematography is beautiful and often given us many uncomfortable close-ups, not allowing us to avoid the caliginous anguish on Joe’s face.
You Were Never Really Here will fly under the radar for most cinema goers I’m anticipating and the extreme violence may be daunting for those who do manage to see it but if you find yourself invested after the first ten minutes or so then you will most likely be engrossed with the unique style of this bleak, gritty drama from one of the most underrated directors working today in Lynne Ramsey. Hopefully there won’t be another eight year wait for her next one.