A violent man with a troubled past. A little girl that needs rescuing. An evil conspiracy. These cliches have been used in countless crime stories. They are also used in Lynne Ramsay's newest film, You Were Never Really Here. However, Ramsay has never been someone who lets plot get in the way of her poetic meditations on the desperate souls that inhabit her films.
Ramsay, who released her last film – the haunting We Need to Talk About Kevin – seven years ago, has struggled in a film industry that deemed her “difficult.” She gained acclaim for two films set in her native Scotland, Ratcatcher and Morvern Callar, but her career hit a few snags when it took five years to get Kevin on set and plans to direct The Lovely Bones and Jane Got a Gun fell through. Now, she’s back with a 90-minute rush of creativity and bloodshed.
Joaquin Phoenix stars as Joe, a hired gun struggling with PTSD likely caused by military service who specializes in rescuing girls from sex trafficking. He is barely holding it together when a job to save a state senator’s daughter goes south and Joe is pushed to the limits of his sanity. While his trauma is his most apparent characterization at first, he eventually reveals a childish streak that suggests he remains emotionally stunted.
Phoenix, an actor known for his intensity, put on weight for the role to become a hulking mass of muscle and pain. From his scraggly beard to his noticeable gut, Phoenix gives a performance that’s equal parts physical and emotional.
Ramsay is up to the task of supporting Phoenix’s strong performance with her mastery of cinematic language. The film represents Joe's psyche through brilliant editing, cutting in brief flashbacks to several tragedies in his past. These flashbacks never linger long enough to fully explain themselves – they exist as fragments in the memory of a troubled man.
Joe, whose preferred weapon is a hammer, lives a violent life – but the bloodshed is mostly portrayed in its aftermath. The film manages to eliminate the visceral thrill of brutality even in its bloodiest set piece, where the carnage is shown through multiple security cameras. The result is a movie that concerns itself with the results of a bloody life while managing to not fall into the trap of unintentionally glorifying said violence.
To top it off, Jonny Greenwood’s beautiful score is as good as his previous works with Paul Thomas Anderson. Greenwood, like everyone else involved in the film, brings his A-game. Ramsay loved his score so much that she added more of it to the film after it premiered at Cannes.
You Were Never Really Here hits hard and I still find myself thinking back to its hypnotic imagery. It’s also just 90 minutes, so you don’t have to give up your whole evening to watch one of the year’s best films.