A bedraggled Joaquin Phoenix stands upon a train platform, shaded by the roof above him. The tracks stand lofty in the middle of New York City, traffic mills below him. Silent, stoic, stocky, Phoenix’s Joe steps out into blistering rays that illuminate his face. In the distance, a train judders towards the station. Contemplating whether to take that step, a fall into the sun-soaked suicide to end the scorpions in his mind, Joe peers round for witness and catches the battered bruised eye of woman onlooker. Seeing her, seeing him, pain and anguish shared upon that platform, Joe lurks back into his shadows.
Stuck inside this equilibrium, always on the brink of death yet pulled back by those in need, Joe is the epitome of an anti-hero in Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here.
Based on a book by Jonathon Ames, You Were Never Really Here is a noir thriller that digs into the pulp of our raw and unnerving hitman Joe. Ex-CIA officer, Joe is a hired hand, specialising in bringing kidnapped and trafficked children back to their parents. When a state senator requests his aid, Joe obliges but finds himself at the centre of a greater conspiracy. And whatever little scraps of his life are left are thrown into bloody turmoil.
You Were Never Really Here is Ramsay’s fourth feature film and her first since We Need to Talk About Kevin back in 2012. Coming back in a blaze of glory, her work on this brooding masterpiece that helped her scoop the Best Screenplay award at Cannes Film Festival.
Ramsay’s daring thriller is never the film you expect it to be (I’d even strike its comparisons to Taxi Driver off is remarks if I were so bold). Even on a second or third watch, details shift and change with viewings. This layered artwork is a meditative exploration of trauma and how it ripples with heated, furious emotion. Joe is encased in his shell – a reserved man blighted by his PTSD that we see in feverish shots and panic attacks. Extreme self-harm and rituals become his norm as he desperately seeks an exit from the pain and images blistering inside of him.
Yet he exudes care, particularly for his elderly and frail mother (played so wonderfully by Judith Roberts) and a yearning for redemption. Wading upwards towards the light through the drowning drudgery of the world, Joe seems to pursue justice. Not just for the young girls he saves, but for him-self; a young boy of abuse starring at him from the past.
This all boils inside Phoenix’s piercing and haunting blue eyes. The actor is triumphant here. One hopes that his work in this film continues to be studied. From his pursed lips that twist into violent outrages to his child-like utterances and soft tones to, his suicidal thoughts brewing under the surface, just beneath the flesh, Phoenix has terrific command of them all. This is Phoenix’s best performance, without a doubt, and this man of violence barely holding on becomes one of the best characters of 2018, if not of all time.
Ekaterina Samsonov, as Nina Votto is a brilliant near silent companion to Phoenix as the pair strike an unlikely friendship revolving around their shared history of maltreatment and neglect. Samsonov’s Nina is quiet but, like Joe, you see this sparks of power and control come to the forefront. Yet still, underneath the bloodshed, there is an innocence waiting to be nurtured by sunlight and care.
Tom Townend’s immense cinematography and the gorgeous framing of the film adds a beautiful redolent depth to the look and feel of the film. Pirouetting dust on light that billows through trees add serenity to one scene whilst the raw black and white CCTV scenes grip in unpredictable violence. It’s gritty yet serene, unnerving yet enriching, tender yet brutal. The film ebbs is a morose and mournful soul encapsulated by so much colour and city-scape beauty.
Jonny Greenwood’s score is a reminder of this, shifting from jarring electronica to a violin symphony as the mood of the film similarly makes alterations. Thriving with unpredictability, Greenwood has a complete understanding of the story here and is aware as to which part of the score will make it tick – adding yet another electric charge to a movie already pulsating with energy.
You Were Never Really Here is an undeniable masterpiece. The film is a work of visceral art that swings as perturbingly as a hammer blow and as soft as a dying song.
You Were Never Really Here is available on Amazon Prime from 2nd November