DIR/WRI: Lynne Ramsey • PRO: Rosa Attab, Pascal Caucheteux, Lynne Ramsay, James Wilson • DOP: Thomas Townend• ED: Joe Bini • MUS: Jonny Greenwood • DES: Tim Grimes• CAST: Joaquin Phoenix, Dante Pereira-Olson, Larry Canady
Lynne Ramsey earned acclaim when she forged a startling psychological drama about the reasonability of parenthood We Need to Talk About Kevin. And after what seems a long hiatus You Were Never Really Here marks Ramsey’s piercing return to cinema, and solidifies her as one of the most potent cinematic forces working today, with a perilous uncompromising vision. The film deservedly earned Ramsey best screenplay and Joaquin Phoenix best actor at Cannes, where the film received much acclaim.
Joe waddles down the hotel corridor with blood still under his nails. The approaching sirens wail through the walls. He cracks open the emergency exit and disappears into the cold wet night. Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) is an addled gulf war veteran employed as a hitman of sorts. He’s experienced in finding kidnapped victims and bestowing brutal violence on those responsible. In You Were Never Really Here Ramsey has carved out a visceral, hallucinogenic collaboration with Phoenix.
The film brings us into the heinous underground world of sex trade. The story is set in motion when the Senator Albert Votto’s daughter Nina is kidnapped. But at its core, this is an intimate character-driven story about the fate of a veteran turned vigilante who seems beyond salvation. A man whose very soul is plagued by the horrors of an abusive past. His very existence has become one of numbness. And all his efforts are strictly focused on anesthetizing the violent thoughts which haunt him, with acts of merciless violence. But any brief solace the violence offers him must be short-lived, as his consciousness sinks further down into the darkest depths of an abyss of bitter loneliness. His efforts to save Nina from her abusers are, in reality, the battle cry of man’s final attempt to reclaim his consciousness.
Ramsey creates a highly subjective experience with her visuals largely mirroring the rocky instability of Joaquin’s Veteran Joe. Everything is calibrated to character and story and consequently loaded with textured sensual images which assist in putting you in Joe’s worn down shoes. You can smell the blood dripping from the hammer, and the dirt, slime, and sludge of the cave-like alleyways and the shadowy annals where evildoers lurk.
Joaquin Phoenix is omnipotent, and his performance has an unparalleled fierceness and richness. He inhabits Joe’s submerged heart with an ironclad commitment, bringing a sorrow and gentleness to his otherwise violent nature. This is Joaquin at his best, his most ripe, offering up every fibre of honesty in his bones to the gods; and what’s bestowed upon us is nothing short of a treasure. And Ekaterina Samsonov’s turn as Nina is the perfect counterpoint to Joaquin, bringing a real vitality and light to all the darkness. Phoenix and Samsonov are accompanied by a powerful cast of performers including John Doman, who brings a formal warmth to his character John McCleary, and Alex Manette as Senator Albert Votto, among others.
In many ways You Were Never Really Here is an existential genre movie in a similar vein to the early works of Scorsese, Michael Mann and Peckinpah in the 70s. The film wields a bubbling anger and hostility which ultimately gives way to a brutality and bloodlust. The film explores a world of endless vice and corruption, which has a sickening reach and transcends apparent social boundaries, from the slime of the gutter to the polish of government. And much to her credit Ramsey lures us down into the depths of Hades, into the nitty gritty urban underbelly of the beast; and brings us through the chaos and out the other side. It’s a perilous self-sacrificing enterprise, and Ramsey commits wholly in her direction. But make no mistake, it’s not for the faint of heart, it’s a barbaric cinematic feast. In the end, it’s the cinematic equivalent of a shot of straight vodka; it burns the throat, but reassures you that your heart’s still beating.