You Were Never Really Here

Dir: Lynne Ramsay. Script: Lynne Ramsay. Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Ekaterina Samsonov, Judith Roberts, John Doman. 85 minutes

4.5 Stars

An unprecedented level of discussion was prompted when the line-up was announced for the Cannes Film Festival in the spring. The new golden age of television had continued its juggernaut-like procession, penetrating the exclusive La Croisette for the very first time, as past Palme d’Or winners David Lynch and Jane Campion were invited to premiere new seasons of their shows Twin Peaks and Top of the Lake respectively. Streaming giant Netflix also continued its meteoric rise, with two films being accepted into the main competition, albeit with a warning from festival director Thierry Frémaux that they would not be allowed back in the future unless they guaranteed theatrical releases in France. There was excitement at the big name auteurs set to compete for the Palme, with the likes of Michael Haneke, Todd Haynes, Sofia Coppola Andrey Zyvagintsev, Yorgos Lanthimos, Noah Baumback, Bong Joon-Ho, Michel Hazanavicius, Ruben Ostlund, and Hong Sang-Soo competing for perhaps the most prestigious prize in cinema alongside the Academy Award.

Amidst all the fanfare, perhaps the most anticipated news was that Scottish writer-director Lynne Ramsay was to make her return to the silver screen in partnership with no less than the great Joaquin Phoenix. The film would also see her reuniting with Radiohead guitarist Johnny Greenwood, who’s scores have been enthralling us for the past decade ever since the legendary Paul Thomas Anderson asked him to do the music for his masterpiece There Will Be Blood. You Were Never Really Here, titled A Beautiful Day in France, went to the French Riviera unfinished. It was the last film in competition to be shown, and editor Joe Bini only completed his cut a matter of hours before it was due to be screened. Ramsay stunned the world with Ratcatcher, Morven Caller and We Need to Talk About Kevin in the past, and she delivered again, receiving a seven minute standing ovation. She went on to share the festival’s Best Screenplay prize with Yorgos Lantimos and Efthymis Filippou for The Killing of a Scared Deer, with Phoenix adding to his already bulging trophy cabinet with a win for Best Actor.

When London Film Festival director Clare Stewart invited Ramsay onto the stage to present her film at its UK premiere on Saturday, one would never imagine that this pint-sized jovial Scottish woman, cracking jokes left, right, and centre, would be capable of producing such a dark, expressionistic neo-noir thriller as You Were Never Really Here. The film follows ex-war veteran and FBI agent turned gun-for-hire Joe (Phoenix). In the very first scene we join him completing a job, and almost immediately after that visit him at his house mid-suicide attempt – the first of many efforts – as he fights to repress the demons of his past. He is interrupted by a shout from his ailing mother (Judith Roberts), who he lives with and cares for diligently.

Joe is contacted by Senator Albert Votto (Alex Mannette) to find his missing teenage daughter, and hurt those who took her from him. He locates her fairly quickly in a seedy brothel, but as he attempts to return her to her father, his rescue mission is suddenly derailed, unleashing a maelstrom of violence involving corrupt power and vile fantasy, taking him deeper and deeper into the hallucinatory darkness. It would be wrong to divulge any of the details of the plot, and also extremely difficult, as Ramsay creates a swirling, operatic nightmare.

This is ostensibly a film with elements of action, thriller, noir, drama, and even horror and comedy. From the logline, this could easily be cliché, and yet Ramsay and her cast and crew elevate it to much more. Though the action elements are superbly visceral, Ramsay is more concerned with the psyche of her leading man, choosing to delve into trouble that torments him, without ever revealing too much.

Likewise, Joe Bini’s razor sharp editing aids with this beacon of visual story-telling, only ever allowing us a foot in the door without opening up, continually rejecting the opportunity of exploitation or glamorisation of violence by cutting away from the action rather than to it. Greenwood’s eerie score is for the most part a driving, electrical symphony, but he balances this delicately, switching it up for a majestic underwater scene at a lake.

As with her previous films, Ramsay renounces the spoken word for startling images, always choosing to show rather than tell, and even then only showing glimpses; clues to a mystery we will never solve, questions with no answers. Joaquin Phoenix proves himself to be among the greatest actors in the world. Since his return from a self-imposed break to launch a rap career (which turned out to be a hoax), he has embarked on one of the hottest runs any actor has experienced in cinematic history, comparable, for example, to Jack Nicholson in the early 1970s. He is able to communicate so much in a look or a shift in body position, and it is hard to imagine anyone else in this role. The scary thing is that this would be career-defining role for almost any other actor working today – and yet Phoenix can do this half-asleep. Stewart introduced Phoenix as the man who makes this film, and while this film is a lesson in how having top draw artists such as Ramsay and Greenwood collaborating can give birth to such incredible work, without Phoenix this could all break down to cliché and pretension. When asked to comment on the film, all he said was “thank you all for coming and enjoy the film”. Wise words.

You Were Never Really Here will be released in UK cinemas on February 23rd 2018.