You Were Never Really Here Review
More on BFI London Film Festival 2017
There is a visceral nature to You Were Never Really Here that makes it incredibly difficult to watch at times. Director Lynne Ramsay doesn't hold back with the gruesome detail, pushing every tense moment to the limit and leaving us wincing in our seats as we watch these grisly acts unfold. It is a decision that makes Jonathan Ames’ pulpy, noirish tale come to life onscreen and burrow its way under your skin in the most impressive, effective way possible, resulting in a film that is chilling, ferocious, and one of Ramsay’s finest.
With a script written by Ramsay and adapted from Ames’ book, the writer-director sets her sights on the grit and grime that lurks beneath the surface of the neon-streaked New York City backdrop, her lens focussing on the morally defunct few who make up its seedier side. One person who occupies this dingy world is Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), a muscle-for-hire who does the dirty deeds no one else will, namely finding missing people. A stocky man with a body covered in scars and injuries, Joe also seems to be carrying the weight of the world on his bulky shoulders, as well as some past trauma that’s haunting him. It is a burden that becomes even heavier when he is tasked with finding the missing daughter of a politician, a case that soon uncovers a whole horrid system of dark dealings and which leaves Joe questioning how much he can actually help. After all, if one man goes up against something so corrupt and powerful, can he ever win?
Ramsay immerses us in this urban underbelly, her expertly paced direction frantic and electrifying, yet also giving quieter scenes of the narrative room to breathe. She peppers the film with violent outbursts, sequences that explode suddenly onto the screen in messy, bloody realism. Those moments without action are brimming with tension too, the threat to Joe and those around him a constant, stifling presence. Stunning cinematography by Thomas Townend further adds to the suggestion of unknown dangers lurking around every corner, the noirish look beautiful but distinctly dark and gritty, while intimate close-ups show us Joe’s crumbling state of mind. Several times Ramsay seems to throw us directly into his head, images flashing up onscreen as he remembers horrors from his past, the piercing soundtrack by Jonny Greenwood completing the assault on our senses. It’s an almost disorientating technique, particularly effective as it directly makes us a part of what we see onscreen, an association which has those sickening violent moments staying with you for a long time.
Joaquin Phoenix’s incredible performance draws us into this complex character even more, his icy glare and quiet, almost muted portrayal making the efficiency and determination with which he performs those brutal acts all the more terrifying to witness. Yet Phoenix portrays Joe with a startling gentleness as well, his world-weary expression hinting at a wealth of hidden pain, both physical and mental, as well as some unknown drive that makes him want to rescue those who cannot help themselves. His softer, caring side is also represented by the touching relationship he has with his elderly mother (Judith Roberts), something that is beautifully compounded in an early scene in which they sing together. That this happens just after we watch him beating a man within an inch of his life gives this sweet moment an uncomfortable edge, the ease with which Joe switches from killer to loving son horrifying to see. He is a morally dubious anti-hero if ever there was one, yet also a man who we can’t help but identify with as the narrative unfolds.
Ramsay holds back on giving us the full story in her script, letting us draw our own conclusion right up until an unexpected ending that questions human morality. Jonny Greenwood’s score adds a disturbing yet immersive energy to the whole film which, when paired with Ramsay’s beautiful direction and imagery, is pure poetry in motion. This is cinematic storytelling at its finest, and even more impressive to see when you realise how easy it would have been to make this into another run-of-the-mill Hollywood action-thriller. Intimate, complex stuff all about the horrors of the world, as well as the inner horrors of our own minds.