With “You Were Never Really Here” writer-director Lynne Ramsay (“We Need to Talk About Kevin”) makes a forceful statement. Not just to her own individual talents as a filmmaker, but to the female perspective and the powerful jolt it can give a genre. By genre, I would call her latest film an action/revenge thriller although even giving it a label feels like a disservice to Ramsay and the plethora of cool ideas she is working with.
Ramsay adapts “You Were Never Really Here” from Jonathan Ames’ 2013 noir novella. At only 95 pages, the novella is both brisk and brutal, an equally fitting description of Ramsay’s movie. Not a second of the taut, economical 90 minutes is wasted and within its framework is a level of craftsmanship and unique storytelling prowess that leans heavily on mood and immersing us through our senses.
Look no further than the opening scene, a tightly edited collage of sound and images that introduces us to Joe (a burly and bearded Joaquin Phoenix). We learn he is a hired gun who specializes in retrieving the young daughters of wealthy, prominent parents from sex trafficking rings. He works off the grid and in his own moral mélange of brutality and compassion. Ramsay only feeds us bits but Joe’s scar-riddled body and glazy worn eyes speak volumes.
When not embedded in New York’s sordid underbelly, Joe cares for his elderly dementia-stricken mother (played by Judith Roberts). Phoenix, the definition of committed and uncompromising, seamlessly moves back-and-forth between these two contrasting worlds. In one scene he’s wiping off a blood-soaked hammer and shortly after polishing silverware and singing a song with his mother. And when Ramsay pushes us deeper into Joe’s head we witness suicidal impulses and traumatic flashbacks to his childhood and military service. They come in startling quick bursts making them all the more unsettling.
Things get even uglier when Joe takes a job to find a State Senator’s daughter (Ekaterina Samsonov) only to run face-first into unexpectedly deeper levels of depravity and corruption. The story grows darker (there is rarely any light to begin with) and the bloodshed amps up. But Ramsay doesn’t revel in the violence nor exploit it for effect. Joe, her principle subject, is a child of violence and his dark psychological journey is often defined by it. While at times graphic, most of the killing happens just off camera or from strategic perspectives – a cracked mirror on a ceiling or through surveillance cameras. It certainly doesn’t mute the savagery.
Ramsay’s style of filmmaking has a fascinating synergy with this material. She often tells her stories through vivid imagery and pulsing sound design instead of a more traditional narrative structure. This is what keeps “You Were Never Really Here” from falling in with more conventional genre pictures. Her camera works like a gritty kaleidoscope, creating and maintaining an essential mood and intensity. Jonny Greenwood’s menacing score is filled with eerie strings and synthesized chords as if pulled from the cracked psyche of its lead character. It all works together in a twisted hypnotic harmony.
At the 2017 Cannes Film Festival “You Were Never Really Here” received a seven-minute standing ovation. Awards went to both Ramsay (Best Screenplay) and Phoenix (Best Actor). I understood why after first seeing it. But it was my second viewing that I was able to fall in with the film’s unique rhythms. And while Joe isn’t necessarily a character you want to spend time with nor is this a comfortable world to be in, Lynne Ramsay keeps our eyes glued to every frame.