Director: Lynne Ramsey
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Judith Roberts, Alex Manette, Frank Pando, Ekaterina Samsonov, John Doman, Alessandro Nivola
Written by Lynne Ramsey and (based on the book) Jonathan Ames
Running Time: 90 mins
Release date: 9th March 2018
Lynne Ramsey isn’t a filmmaker with a huge collection of work to her name but what she does have is quality. The Scottish director also doesn’t shy away from difficult or controversial subject matters. Her first film, Ratcatcher, dealt with poverty during the 70’s, Morvern Callar was about grief while her last film, We Need To Talk About Kevin, has a mother coping with a dangerous child. Now comes her fourth feature, You Were Never Really Here, which again delves into the dark world of child abuse and violence and while the subject sounds hard-hitting, the film is a triumph.
Joe is a traumatised veteran living with his elderly mother and having to cope with the memories of his past. He has a job, as a hired hand sent to track down and retrieve kidnapped children from those willing to use them for sex. His methods are often violent and brutal yet he gets the job done, even if it affects his own mental wellbeing. When he is hired by a would-be senator to find his missing daughter, Joe finds himself dragged into a world that could leave him dead or completely broken.
There is no denying that Ramsey’s film is a tough watch. With its clever use of sound and unsettling editing, it draws out the story of a man living on the edge while also being an angel of death. Based on the novella by Jonathan Ames, Ramsey has stripped down the story and taken the point of view of a man suffering while standing up for those who need help. It doesn’t pull its punches, instead, you feel every inch of that pain. The score, brilliantly composed by Jonny Greenwood, compliments the strange and very loud noises that crawl under your skin, building the tension.
This is a film that demands to be seen in the cinema. The sound, which plays such a big part, needs to be heard in a cinema. This is a film that may get lost in translation on a small screen. Ramsey is a filmmaker who knows how to use cinema to the maximum. To capture the sense of menace, the locations are perfect. She also uses film in various ways. A sequence when Joe wanders through the house where the girl is being held is seen from the CCTV cameras. Grainy black and white, cutting from one empty corridor to another, we get glimpses of Joe’s journey, while never seeing the full violence he inflicts on the men part of the conspiracy. It’s a powerful, shocking scene that works magnificently and proof, once again, that you don’t need to see the graphicness of violence to leave you still feeling shaken.
For all of the strengths of Ramsey’s filmmaking style, it wouldn’t have worked half as well if the actor playing Joe wasn’t strong. Luckily, Joaquin Phoenix is superb as the loner, a man with so many levels and yet as complex his character is, you see every inch of pain drawn on Phoenix’s face. Nice to see a flawed hero who wasn’t muscle-bound and superhuman. This is a man who can get hurt just as much as his own victims. I would say this is Phoenix’s best screen role in years.
You Were Never Really Here isn’t for everyone and some may find the film frustrating and maybe far too dark. Those willing to enter Joe’s world will find a cinematic work of art that definitely puts Ramsey on the map as a director determined to push herself and her material as well as one of this country’s finest. A shocking, powerful film and a mini-masterpiece.