Tilda Swinton once called Lynne Ramsey “the Real McCoy”: a director whose films could not have been made by anybody else. Best known for her quiet and introspective work, Ramsay has garnered much critical acclaim – even having an “Every Frame a Painting” episode dedicated to her work. At first glance her latest seems a startling volte-face: the woman who brought us We need to Talk about Kevin, with its tense family interactions, has now directed a pulpy and violent thriller? Yet under the surface the two stories have much in common – most prominently that the psychological aspect of violence can be every bit as damaging as the physical. You Were Never Really Here is one of our most surprising action-thrillers of recent years: mostly quiet and restrained, tension builds until suddenly exploding into a pulsating blast of sound and fury. The main character is Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), an aging PI whose principle investigative technique is violence. He seems to specialise in tracking down kidnapped children, though his predilection for ball-peen hammers suggests his clientele is the sort who want rough justice.
“The film is most truly a concerto for a solo actor, and Phoenix excels as the soloist”
The film does feature a strong supporting cast, including Judith Roberts as Joe’s mother, John Doman as his boss, and Ekaterina Samsonov as a girl kidnapped and forced into prostitution; all of them exist to a greater or lesser extent at the periphery with little screen-time and fewer lines. You Were Never Really Here is most truly a concerto for a solo actor, and Phoenix excels as the soloist. Joe comes with all the usual trappings – a painkiller addiction, PTSD from a military career long past and a childhood mutilated by an abusive father. Yet the control and embodiment that Phoenix brings to the character is staggering. It’s nigh impossible to believe that this is the same man who played Commodus in Gladiator or Freddie Quell in The Master. This is made all the more impressive given how spare the script is: mostly he acts solely through his haggard face and weighty body language. The score, by Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead fame, reinforces this sense of concerto with a bifurcated structure. Using extended periods of either silence or a pulsating and violent soundtrack, the film can either let you stay relatively relaxed or clench you in tightly as it ramps up the tension. This masterfully controls the mood, and Ramsay has an exacting power over your emotional response as a viewer.
You Were Never Really Here wears its influences lightly but deeply. It is so original and distinct yet bears the hallmarks of a wide variety of films and film movements. It is most definitely a noir: filled with pessimism, violence and a pulpy plot. Yet it lacks the heightened sense that defines most noirs from Double Indemnity to L.A. Confidential. This realistic tone framing a rather extraordinary plot mirrors another film that You Were Never Really Here consciously apes – Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. Both films share a protagonist who struggles to fit into society, who fail to find meaning in their lives, and whose violence reflects their inner turmoil. But these two broken men are broken in different ways. Travis Bickle is the more detached; he will try anything to define himself, though can only understand the languages of violence and sex. It is mere happenstance that he ends up acclaimed for killing a pimp – he could have murdered the Presidential candidate instead. Joe, however, feels like he was once functional before washing up in his current wrecked state – an oxymoronic mixture of rage, fear, and apathy. He does not seek validation from others, their desires merely act as a loose framework shaping his actions. Indeed, whilst Bickle seems unafraid of death, Joe is haunted by suicidal thoughts and it is only those that rely on him who break him out of his apathetic bent, driving him forwards. You Were Never Really Here ’s other strong influence is the horror genre. Psycho is aptly referred to – both films ramp up the sense of dread and then suddenly explode into violence. Ramsay also visually quotes The Shining – an athematic reminder of the self-destructive capabilities of powerful men.
“Ultimately, the film is more of a character study than a straight up thriller”
Ultimately, You Were Never Really Here is more of a character study than a straight up thriller. It is more interested in how Joe reacts at every moment, rather than the implications of his actions as they ripple through the wider world. If you are prepared to accept the film and its preoccupations on its own terms then you will find an engaging and thoughtful film, utterly unlike anything else in cinemas.
Dir: Lynne Ramsay. Script: Lynne Ramsay. Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Ekaterina Samsonov, Alex Manette, John Doman, Judith Robertse Fanning. 90 minutes