You Were Never Really Here

****1/2

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

You Were Never Really Here
"Nothing plays out as you expect, with Ramsay maintaining an unsettling staccato that keeps both the action and the viewer on edge."

Abuse can be tricky to evoke onscreen with directors often so desperate to recreate the visceral aspects that they voyeuristically dive in. Lynne Ramsay gives a masterclass in mood setting at the start of this taut thriller, using suggestive camerawork paired with a nerve-jangling score by Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood to feel the horror of (a double) assault that we do not see - a personalised girl's necklace is all we need to see to know what territory we're in. One incident appears to be a recollection of the recent past, another like a far-off remembered nightmare in the mind of hitman Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), who we immediately learn has suicidal tendencies as he battles for breath from inside a plastic bag.

And though this film has the sort of plot that launched a thousand thrillers - hired gun goes on hunt for missing girl and becomes embroiled in a much bigger story - there is nothing formulaic about Ramsay's imagining, as she focuses on the psychological inner workings of her central character's brain, even as the violence rages around him. Joe may set about the task of killing people with a hammer and brutal efficiency but his mind is a sea of fragmented thoughts that we swim in and out of with him - water imagery also abounds. Like her previous film, We Need To Talk About Kevin, this is less about a standard narrative than about a person scouring their soul for guilt at the same time as going through the daily motions. Ramsay pulls back from the violence, showing us occasional glimpses, mostly aftermath, all of which further suggests just how routine this has become for Joe while proving our guts can still feel a punch that our eyes cannot see.

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Phoenix - who has arguably never been better - sets out his stall as a full array of damaged goods. Scenes in which his deep care for his elderly infirm mother (Judith Roberts) is heartbreakingly evident - in particular a cracked duet of A, You're Adorable - make his life of violence all the more tragic, as though he's still as trapped as he was in the fractured moments we see from his childhood; despite no longer being powerless, he is still caught up in an unending torrent of muddled anger and despair. Sometimes it seems he sees dead people, at others you wonder if perhaps it is he who is the ghost.

Nothing plays out as you expect, with Ramsay maintaining an unsettling staccato that keeps both the action and the viewer on edge. Her use of humour sometimes leavens the moment and, at others, cuts like a knife. It's safe to say that after this, you're likely to be consigning Charlene's I've Never Been To Me to the same awkward 'uneasy listening' place in your record collection occupied by Steeler's Wheel's Stuck In The Middle With You after Reservoir Dogs.

Even when we meet Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov) the girl he intends to save, it becomes less an encounter between saviour and victim than a strange meeting of minds between two lost souls who somehow see themselves reflected. As Ramsay and Phoenix burrow deeper into the psyche of Joe, the mood intensifies - and it is us who find ourselves struggling to breathe.

Reviewed on: 10 Feb 2018
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You Were Never Really Here packshot
A tormented assassin tries to rescue a girl but trouble lies ahead.
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Director: Lynne Ramsay

Writer: Lynne Ramsay, based on the novel by Jonathan Ames

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Ekaterina Samsonov, Alessandro Nivola, Alex Manette, John Doman, Judith Roberts, Jason Babinsky, Kate Easton, Frank Pando, Leigh Dunham, Madison Arnold, Dante Pereira-Olson, Jonathan Wilde, Scott Price, Silvia Pena

Year: 2017

Runtime: 95 minutes

Country: US, France


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If you like this, try:

We Need To Talk About Kevin