FILM REVIEW: You Were Never Really Here (2017)
The filmography of Scottish director Lynne Ramsay would suggest that she has an attraction to dark subject matter. If there is a thread that ties her work together, it’s her sensitivity when dealing with ‘troubled’ characters, an impulse to look past their actions and explore the beneath. She is less concerned with plot and more with interiority; her protagonists’ backstories are closets filled with all manner of skeletons to be glimpsed, grasped, and sometimes pulled out and examined. What makes her unique, and her films so compelling, is her interest in exploring the events surrounding a story, rather than the story itself. You Were Never Really Here is the strongest example of this, and the most accomplished entry into her oeuvre so far.
A synopsis of the plot at this point would feel redundant, because this isn’t really a plot-driven film. All you need to know is that a grizzled, messed-up, fearless-in-the-face-of-danger gun-for-hire called Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) has got tied up in a tricky situation. There’s a political conspiracy happening somewhere in the background of this noirish story, and a girl that needs saving. Scene-by-scene, Ramsay ratchets up the tension and suspense and intrigue so that by the closing sequence the audience’s nerves are in shreds. We’re longing desperately for Joe to be OK, to get out of this alive with all of his limbs and digits intact, but it’s never really obvious how things are going to turn out for him. The best kinds of thrillers resist predictability and don’t play things safe.
As soon as Ramsay sat down to write the screenplay for You Were Never Really Here, which she adapted from a Jonathan Ames novella, she had Joaquin Phoenix’s photo stuck up on the wall and he was the only actor she had in mind to play Joe. It’s easy to see why, especially if you try to picture another, more mainstream actor attempting to play Joe as if he were the all-American hero rescuing damsels and wiping out bad guys. Phoenix himself is drawn to characters with depth and darkness and he brings so many shades of dark to the role of Joe. He is the archetypal noir hero, plagued by flashes of painful incidents from his past and popping pills to stop himself completely losing his shit as he goes about his work. The only light he has in his life comes from his relationship with his mother, and the scenes between them are suffused with humour and sweetness, much-needed moments of respite from the shadowy world of Joe’s profession.
But although this is a very dark film, it somehow manages to not feel bleak. There is a deliberate distance placed between us and the violence – in one scene we watch it happening through grainy security cameras, in another we see it reflected in a ceiling mirror. Perhaps this is meant to demonstrate the numbness Joe feels, how desensitized he has become after years of witnessing the worst of humankind. Ramsay makes very conscious, deliberate decisions when choosing to focus on small details within the frame, rather than the broader picture; details like a jelly bean being squashed between thumb and forefinger; the sound of footsteps on gravel growing louder and louder; a whispered voice counting backwards. It’s masterful filmmaking, heightening the audience’s senses, attuning their emotions to the tone. And the sound design, along with Jonny Greenwood’s superlative score, adjoin with Ramsay’s vision seamlessly, taking risks in all the right places and serving to drag us even deeper into Joe’s interior world. It’s one of those scores you’ll be listening to long after watching the movie – memorably bold and exquisitely executed. Have we come to expect anything less from Greenwood?
You Were Never Really Here is thriller cinema at its best. There are echoes of Taxi Driver in the subject matter and tone, but Ramsay brings her own brand of sensitivity and experimentation to the mix – it’s like watching Taxi Driver through the lens of an art film. The visual, auditory, and kinaesthetic landscape of the story is so perfectly realised, and brought together by Phoenix’s compelling performance, that the film gets under your skin and stays there.