You Were Never Really Here

Director: Lynne Ramsay.
Screenplay: Lynne Ramsay.
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Ekaterina Samsonov, Alessandro Nivola, Judith Roberts, John Doman, Alex Manette, Dante Pereira-Olson, Frank Pando.

“I want you to hurt them”

After only four films – Ratcatcher, Morven Callar, We Need to Talk About Kevin and You Were Never Really Here it’s now apparent that Scottish director Lynne Ramsay has managed to forge her own particular style. She’s also a director that’s so focused on her own approach that she won’t just bow down to studio pressures as her proposed adaptation of The Lovely Bones will attest to and her ill-fated vision for Jane Got a Gun – both films that she walked away from despite being heavily involved in the initial stages. Her latest, You Were Never Really Here, is somewhat the perfect example of her uncompromising approach and how powerful her bad-assitude can play out on screen when she’s left to express her own vision.

Plot: Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) is a Gulf War veteran with PTSD who is completely unafraid of violence. This makes him the best hired gun when it comes to tracking down missing girls for a living. Sometimes he’s even employed because of his brutal reputation and his effortless ability to hurt the perpetrators when he catches up with them. However, when Joe is employed to find Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov) the innocent 13-year-old daughter of an ambitious New York senator (Alex Manette), he finds himself embroiled in a conspiracy that spirals out of control.

Lynne Ramsay herself has said that she often doesn’t understand the plot synopses of this film as they don’t quite capture what the film is actually like. I’ve been just as guilty of that (as others have) in what I’ve written above and I can completely understand her feelings on it. Any synopsis is just a general overview and can never encapsulate a films mood, characterisation or artistry. It’s like saying that Drive is just about a getaway driver – it’s not and for anyone who’s seen it will know that the languid pace, the cinematography, the mood and the score are just as important to the film as any plot developments. In terms of plot this shares some similarities with Nicolas Winding Refn’s aforementioned film; it’s a literary adaptation, it’s about one man’s crusade to rescue someone in need and they’re both directed by Europeans who have entered into the American market. The biggest comparison, however, is that the plot is secondary to the overall composition. The reminders you get from the plot is actually Liam Neeson in Taken. Don’t be disheartened, though, as this is a very different film and it’s a perfect example of how a story can essentially be regurgitated and work even better when it has a quality director behind it. This isn’t your standard Hollywood schtick where Phoenix runs around dishing out the knuckle-sandwiches or talking like a Neeson-esque tough guy. To be fair, Taken has it’s place among the action genre and appeals to the masses but the more discerning viewer will appreciate Ramsay’s film much, much more. There are action scenes involved here but that’s not Ramsay’s primary focus. If anything when she delivers them she does so in a brutal and unrelenting way that it’s far from the glorification of Hollywood violence. Ramsay makes no bones about being more focused on character and it’s here that Joaquin Phoenix excels. Phoenix has been on great form recently; his outstanding performances in The Master, Her and Inherent Vice have been some of the best flawed individual performances for the past few years and his work here can be included among them. Phoenix’s Joe is a hulking brute who prefers to serve out his vigilante justice with a ball-peen hammer but it’s not as simple as that. Joe has his own issues. A former war veteran who’s scarred body reflects the scars and inner turmoil of his mind and this coupled with his own traumatic childhood leave him in a permanent state of suicidal despair where we regularly witness him pushing himself to the edge by asphyxiating himself with a plastic bag and dangling daggers into his mouth. What’s most striking about Phoenix’s performance, however, is that he has very little dialogue. The bulk of his communication is purely physical and Ramsay has a keen eye and inventive means in which to make Joe a very damaged but powerful presence.

Complimenting Ramsay’s measured and deliberate filmmaking is Jonny Greenwood’s deeply affecting score. As Ramsay imbues the film with hallucinatory and elliptical imagery, Greenwood symbiotically ebbs and flows alongside, contributing to not only the emotional state of our lead character but to the entire film as a whole. It’s this meeting of minds that contribute to how successfully the film becomes its own beast. It has been likened to a modern-day Taxi Driver and I can see the comparison (again in terms of plot) but Ramsay puts her own stamp on the proceedings and manages to turn a conventional narrative into something more inventive, artistic and unconventional.

A raw, brutal and uncompromising revenge thriller that may well be Lynne Ramsay’s best film thus far. It received a seven-minute standing ovation at its Cannes Film Festival premiere with Ramsay winning the award for Best Screenplay and Joaquin Phoenix winning for Best Actor. Although I’m happy about this, others may not see what all the fuss is about. It’s unconventionality and enigmatic style may ostracise some viewers but, personally, that’s what I found so intriguing.

Mark Walker

Trivia: Joaquin Phoenix has stated that Lynne Ramsay gave him an audio file of fireworks mixed with gunshots to suggest what’s going on in Joe’s head.

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18 Responses to “You Were Never Really Here”

  1. Morven Callar fascinated me quite a bit. We need to talk about Kevin was super disturbing. I think Lynne Ramsay just became one of my top directors. The fact that she’s a female doesn’t hurt as well.

    Liked by 1 person

    • She certainly puts her own stamp on things. I would love to have seen her version of The Lovely Bones and Jane Got a Gun but sadly it wasn’t to be. I’m always intrigued to see what she comes up with and not only is it great that she’s a strong female voice but I’m very happy that she’s a Scottish director that has come from my own home city. I always like to see that as there’s not many out there. πŸ™‚

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I havent watched that movie yet but i will after this review

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Loved your review. I’m excited to Phoenix–I can’t get enough of him. What an actor!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. A very well written review Mark. Thanks for putting it on my radar. BTW, it’s Vinnieh here. I set up a second blog.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Excited to see this film when it gets to Oz.

    Liked by 1 person

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