You Were Never Really Here

Director: Lynne Ramsay

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix; Ekaterina Samsonov; John Doman; Judith Roberts; Frank Pando; Alex Manette; Alessandro Nivola

Words – Nathan Scatcherd

Based on the novella by Jonathan Ames, You Were Never Really Here is an unremittingly intense examination of a man not quite so much ‘on edge’ as ‘constantly dangling over the edge by his fingertips’.
Joaquin Phoenix is mesmerising as Joe, a deeply disturbed sad-eyed mountain of a man who rescues children from sex abuse rings with the aid of a hammer. He may save these kids from monstrous predators who would do them harm, but it’s painfully clear that Joe is seriously in need of rescuing himself.

The film has drawn comparisons to Taxi Driver, and these comparisons are somewhat apt (both follow a damaged, suicidal male loner living on the fringes of society; both feature a young girl who sparks a semblance of warmth in said protagonist; both inject their grimy street level sensibilities with moments which – without spoiling anything – are very much open to interpretation in regards to the fractured subjectivity of the protagonists’ POV).
However, whereas Taxi Driver is a slow-burning plunge into a seedy urban underbelly – a grim but steady descent into Hell – You Were Never Really Here is a full-on swan dive, dealing in sheer stomach-tightening, white knuckle intensity and extreme discomfort from its opening scene, constantly holding the tension wire taut. There are points in this movie where it feels difficult to draw breath. It may ostensibly be a psychological thriller or neo-noir character piece, but the way it deals with its themes of abuse, repression and inward, soul-deep desolation leave it feeling closer to an outright horror movie.

Despite some overly showy editing at points, Ramsay has crafted a film of otherwise impeccable control. Almost every second seems tailored to ratchet up the tension and disquiet, aided invaluably by some of the most powerful sound editing of recent memory.
Along with Jonny Greenwood’s haunting, menacing score – with its pulsing synths and percussive stabs – the seemingly innocuous sounds of a coffee pot brewing, or a car wing mirror being adjusted, become like sonic knives to the brain. We stay with Joe throughout, his rage and sadness and paranoia combining into an at times hallucinatory cocktail it’s difficult to sober up from even after the credits have rolled.

Phoenix’s performance really is something to behold; he lumbers like a bear, mumbling and wheezing, his tragic melancholy offset by moments of terrifying brutality. Violence is treated very deftly; we rarely even see it take place, Ramsay instead often choosing to only let us witness its messy aftermath, and what violence we do see is completely robbed of any of the catharsis we might expect from ‘cool movie vigilante’ action. Joe’s early assault on a ring of paedophiles, as he takes down several with his trusty hammer, is shown mostly through security camera footage, and in displaying it in such a detached, choppily edited manner it seems genuinely horrifying rather than gratifying (as many films would no doubt have presented the violent deaths of a bunch of child molesters).

The focus remains throughout not on any potentially dodgy vigilante fantasy, but on the steady degradation of a man’s soul. It is an utterly punishing experience… one I highly recommend.



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