Only the fourth feature-length film of a career which began back in 1999 with the strikingly original Ratcatcher, Lynne Ramsay’s long-awaited follow-up to We Need to Talk About Kevin is a breathtaking, ferocious fever-dream of violence and urban alienation. It’s a Taxi Driver for the post-truth era, offering further proof of this filmmaker’s formidable gift for fiercely inventive visual storytelling. You Were Never Really Here is a cinematic experience so full-blooded and thrillingly intense it makes the work of most contemporary directors look anaemic in comparison.
This pared-down adaptation of a Jonathan Ames novella is a portrait of suicidal, traumatised war veteran Joe (Joaquin Phoenix). He cares for his elderly mother (Judith Roberts) in their crumbling New York apartment. Meanwhile, his work for a shady security service involves rescuing abducted children from their captors, by any means necessary. In Joe’s case this usually involves the ruthlessly expert wielding of a ball-peen hammer, with disastrous effects on the structural integrity of his foe’s heads. Not a date movie, then…
When Joe is viciously double-crossed, he sets out on a chillingly uncomplicated two-pronged mission; to avenge himself on his enemies and to save Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), the drug-damaged daughter of a corrupt New York politician. However, any summary of the bare-bones plot fails to do justice to You Were Never Really Here. This is a movie all about Ramsay’s ability to assault the senses, creating a kaleidoscope of clashing sense impressions which offer a window into Joe’s turbulent soul.
The paucity of titles in Ramsay’s filmography can partially be explained by funding woes and red-tape tangle. Yet, with the precisely calibrated focus she brings to bear on every project, it’s little wonder her films take so long to gestate. Ramsay offers an immersive form of total cinema. Music choices, clever sound design and an arsenal of photographic techniques (including her trademark extreme close-ups of minute, but revealing, details and textures) are all harnessed to give her work a distinctive signature.
Ramsay manages to avoid cliché in capturing the febrile atmosphere of New York’s backstreets, focusing less on the physical landscape than on Joe’s experience of his surroundings. Dialogue and exposition are kept to an absolute minimum. Instead we learn about Joe’s past via a succession of trauma-induced memory shards which periodically jut into view, disrupting the flow of events and creating a jarring sense of anxiety which barely relents over the course of the film. This melding of interior and external worlds is another Ramsay trademark, here reinforced by Joe Bini’s superb editing and a Jonny Greenwood electronic score which brilliantly mirrors Joe’s inner turmoil. In one sequence, Greenwood even offers a cheeky nod to Bernard Herrmann’s work on Psycho, one of many references in YWNRH to Hitchcock’s landmark dissection of a fractured mind.
For all the technical mastery on show, it’s Joaquin Phoenix who supplies heart and soul. His bear-like physique every bit as scarred and battered as his psyche, Joe’s tormented longing for inner peace makes him the most sympathetic hammer-murderer in cinema history. Ramsay provides no easy answers for this ruined warrior. Joe is a man doomed to walk alone, beset by demons which cannot be dispelled with any amount of cathartic violence or desperate attempts at redemption.
You Were Never Really Here isn’t perfect. This is thematic territory that has been staked out before most notably by Taxi Driver. It sometimes leans too heavily on shock tactics for effect. However, very few films released this year will exert such tremendous force. This is 90 bruising, exhilarating minutes of pure cinema.