Review by Tom Cooney
Directed by Lynne Ramsay
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Judith Roberts, Ekaterina Samsonov, John Doman and Alessandro Nivola
Lynne Ramsay is a filmmaker known to pack a punch. From 1999’s bleak childhood drama Ratcatcher, to 2011’s disturbing Lionel Shriver adaptation, We Need to Talk About Kevin, the Scottish writer/director consistently manages to soak her deeply complex characters into the minds of her audience. You Were Never Really Here is only Ramsay’s fourth feature film – her first in six years – and her storytelling staples remain. Joaquin Phoenix plays Joe, a traumatised war veteran and hitman, tasked with tracking down 14-year-old Nina from a child prostitution ring. On the surface this seems a darkly simple premise, but Ramsay’s sporadic interjections of Joe’s tragic past distort and reshape the film into what can only be described as visual poetry.
As with Ramsay’s tonal and thematic trademarks, this abstract filmmaking style is also found throughout her previous work. In You Were Never Really Here, her Cannes-award-winning screenplay and Joe Bini’s editing work together to pull it off with cinematic flair. However, while undoubtedly giving the film an enrapturing pull, this stylistic focus does shroud much of her film in obscurity. We never entirely get to grips with Joe’s past, Ramsay’s poetic flashbacks remaining merely that – poetry. It’s a decision that demonstrates how the specifics of his trauma are unimportant, and what really matters are the effects of this trauma. This justification won’t be enough to please everyone, but it’s a vision that Ramsay sees through with an unwavering commitment.
In addition to the film’s Cannes win for Best Screenplay, Joaquin Phoenix also picked up the award for Best Actor – and it’s not surprising to see why. From Ridley Scott’s Gladiator to Spike Jonze’s Her, Phoenix has impressed time and time again throughout his career, showcasing his ability to play almost anybody. You Were Never Really Here is another notch on his diamond-encrusted belt, as the actor embodies the pain of Joe’s past alongside the release he gets from committing acts of extreme violence. The actor impresses particularly in scenes with his mother, charmingly portrayed by Judith Roberts. Here, Phoenix exhibits the light to his shade, allowing us to truly feel for a character otherwise enveloped in mystery.
While the film’s title, You Were Never Really Here, may be an apt summation of Joe as a character – sweeping in and out of the film’s locations like a phantom – the film itself is certainly not as discreet. From her radical narrative style to her relentless use of violence, Ramsay unapologetically imbues her picture with a palpable intensity rarely matched in film. She describes her work as being filled with ”a kind of crazy punk rock energy” – a statement she backs up in every frame – proving once again that the filmmaker is one of the most exciting working today.