There’s a moment in Lynne Ramsay’s latest film You Were Never Really Here where Senator Votto (Alex Manette), the father of the kidnapped Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov) asks Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) whether he’s as brutal as people say. The bearded hired gun pauses for a moment before quietly and almost resignedly replying with “I can be”. If there is any moment in this film which is indicative of how special of a filmmaker Lynne Ramsay is, it’s this one. You’d expect most other filmmakers to tackle Jonathan Ames’ novel of the same name in a way that nearly indulges in the violence, but there is never a moment in the film where the audience is meant to be excited by the violence on screen. This is the world of You Were Never Really Here, a world of seemingly never-ending ugliness with few glimpses of happiness that Ramsay articulates perfectly.
Our previously aforementioned main character, Joe, a hired gun who seems to specialise in bringing back abducted children from their kidnappers, is a complex man. We don’t know much about him, aside from that he constantly cares for his elderly mother (Judith Roberts) and through startling flashes, is marred by a trauma-filled life. Apart from enjoying his mother’s company, there doesn’t seem to be many things in life that Joe enjoys leading him to be tempted by suicide.
While the story on a surface level might be considered barebones (a hired gun attempts to rescue a senator’s missing daughter), the film truly is a multi-layered character study of a traumatised man who has only ever known violence. Sitting at a relatively short runtime of 89 minutes, the film rushes through Joe’s stream of consciousness at a fast pace, without sacrificing any of its poetic heft. It simply doesn’t waste a single frame, which is a testament to both Lynne Ramsay and editor Joe Bini’s talents.
While being bolstered by the immaculate editing and Jonny Greenwood’s beautifully sundry score, the film truly belongs to both Joaquin Phoenix and Lynne Ramsay. It’s easy to see why Phoenix won the Best Actor Award at last year’s Cannes Film Festival for this role, he turns in an unexpectedly layered and subtle performance as a person with a whirlwind of emotions behind his eyes. He is terrifyingly brutal but Phoenix brings a certain fragility to Joe. While it doesn’t draw attention to itself, the performance is a powerhouse which flows seamlessly with Ramsay’s idiosyncratic vision.
You Were Never Really Here is a complex, poetic study of trauma and violence as well as a showcase of how Lynne Ramsay and Joaquin Phoenix are two of the best in the game right now. It is quite simply as perfect of a cinematic experience as you can get; a visceral and striking sensory experience with an emotional astuteness which will stay with you long after viewing.