Dark, brooding and savagely violent, You Were Never Really Here never loosens its grip on your attention. Lynne Ramsay’s newest film smacks of the same neon saturated sleeplessness of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, whilst also sculpting something uniquely unsettling and relentless in its momentum.
You Were Never Really Here, adapted from the Johnathan Ames book of the same name, follows the work of bulky gun-for-hire, Joe (played by a bearded Joaquin Phoenix). An emotionally and physically scarred ex-soldier and police officer, Joe has turned his brutal talents to ‘private security’, with a speciality in recovering kidnapped teenagers. Oh yes, and he lives with his mother (Judith Roberts). After Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), the daughter of an aspiring Senator, is kidnapped and forced into a child-sex ring, Joe is hired to find her and bring her home, using his patented blend of bone shattering violence and cunning. However, after a string of unforeseeable twists complicate and endanger both the lives of Joe and Nina, it becomes a fight for survival. Expert camerawork, knuckle-whitening and realistic scenes of violence interspersed with a scattering of flashbacks to Joe’s traumatic past flesh out an otherwise formulaic plot into something distinctive and terrifying.
Within its first ten minutes, the film shows you exactly what to expect for its duration. Joe, after clearing up a hotel room following one of his assignments, exits through a back alley, only to be attacked by a mugger. Without flinching, he headbutts and beats the assailant, leaving him collapsed in the alley, before sauntering away.
Whilst Ramsay executes scenes of violence with prowess, it is the scenes where she refrains from being explicit that her work truly shines. This is shown in the camera’s tendency to rest on objects touched by Joe, even after he walks out of the shot. One such scene is where Joe is at a DIY store and grabs a hammer off a sales rack. The camera focuses on the row of swaying hammers as he shuffles to the next aisle, with the viewer fully aware, almost afraid, of the devastation Joe could unleash with such a weapon.
“the absence of dialogue throughout most of the film leaves the viewer’s mind racing”
Ensuing scenes show the unfolding brutality through other innovative mediums, such as through CCTV footage, a ceiling mirror in a hotel room – or simply not at all, instead opting to show the results of Joe’s rampages.
This variety of explicity is also evident in the film’s dialogue, or lack thereof. Rare and abrupt, the absence of dialogue throughout most of the film leaves the viewer’s mind racing, giving you time to process events, but also time to empathise with Joe amidst the disarray. This also reflects a mastery of exposition on Ramsay’s part. Given the rarity of speech, however, Phoenix’s tendency to mumble makes elements of the film even more difficult to grasp than I feel Ramsay intended.
Regardless, Phoenix, who according to Ramsay was very involved in the film, offering his own suggestions of how Joe should act, performs his duties exceptionally. Quite the contrast from his tender role in 2013’s Her, his face is now buried beneath a greying beard, his frame inflated into a hulking mass of muscles and scars.
Between the killings, Ramsay finds time to exhibit some incredibly striking cinematography. Whether it be the sky of a new dawn seared pink, hanging above a twinkling city, or a lush green forest by a lake, these shots add a welcome drop of calm into the chaos.
Additionally, the film’s soundtrack by Jonny Greenwood is a perfect accompaniment to the plot. It cycles between a pulsating and sleek theme during the driving scenes, and an unnerving compilation of trembling strings reminiscent of Hitchcock’s Psycho – amusingly not the only allusion to this film made by Ramsay. Whilst on the topic of sounds – the noise of the film is deafening. Whether it be cars whizzing past, gunshots or the sharp transitions to flashbacks to Joe’s childhood, it’s almost certain you will be jolted to the edge of your seat by something.
Noir, mysterious and captivating, You Were Never Really Here overwhelms the senses and makes for one of the best films over the year so far. Although by it is by no means perfect, Ramsay has crafted an incredibly innovative film, which marks a promising sign among a film industry clogged with reboots, sequels and prequels.