United once again with astounding composer Jonny Greenwood (of Radiohead), director Lynne Ramsay returns with You Were Never Really Here, a murky tale of regret, revenge and redemption. Despite being temporarily attached to several projects, this is Ramsay’s first time in the director’s chair in six years, following up her astonishing adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s novel We Need to Talk About Kevin. Her latest has been a festival hit, having been talked about since Cannes 2017 where it was nominated for the Palme d’Or and awarded Best Screenplay. A short and devastating affair, the film follows Joe, a haunted veteran turned hired, fatal muscle. As he attempts to rescue a young girl from under-aged sexual slavery, he quickly finds himself tangled in a world of corruption, and inescapable violence. In its humble 85-minute run time, Joe’s quest is an immediate and relentless one. Along the way he’s accompanied by harrowing flashbacks of the horrors of war and an abusive childhood as he finds himself at the heart of a conspiracy that promises to deliver a bloody fate to all those who get in its way. Greenwood’s aggressive original score complements the dream like mystery at the very heart of You Were Never Really Here as well as its unforgiving intensity. A grubby baseball cap and an untamed beard hide the face of a broken man whose sorrow and suffering are projected into the violent acts he commits for a living.
There is a tenderness that flows through the film, expressed in the fact that the walls were closing in on Joe long before he was a wanted man. Soon to appear on our screens as Jesus Christ himself in Garth Davis’ Mary Magdalene, here Joaquin Phoenix is Joe – a man also condemned to death because of sins he’s witnessed. Phoenix brings all his usual fury and chaos to Ramsay’s poetic journey through a blood drenched nightmare. His performance is glorious – driven by his characters decent into madness and the resulting vulnerability. He’s equal parts fierce and fragile, anguished and angered. Regardless of whether or not it’s possible to enjoy such a dark piece of cinema, there’s no denying this is a technical masterclass of a movie. Expertly handled and edited to perfection, it’s a multi-sensory delight; a painful, yet irresistible, injection of pure cinema delivering an unforgettable high. Despite a handful of strong supporting roles around him, this film is carried on the lone shoulders of Phoenix. He remains a tour de force of American indie cinema; an unfathomable, captivating labyrinth of an actor. He brings a wildness and an unpredictable energy that perhaps Philip Seymour Hoffman passed on to him on the set of The Master before his death. You Were Never Really Here confirms that Ramsay’s cinema remains beautifully bleak. There’s as much sadness and tragic loss of innocence here as we first saw in Ratcatcher all those years ago. Ramsay isn’t one for redeeming her protagonists, but rather revelling in their nonredeemable situations. It’s toxic and intoxicating all at once and its why she continues to be one of the greatest directors currently working.
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