You Were Never Really Here

 

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A New York tale to arouse strong reactions from its audience.

 
You Were Never Really Here

Joaquin Phoenix and Judith Roberts

 

Watching this film is quite an experience - and a very individual one too. That is exactly what many would hope for given that this is the work of the Scottish writer/director Lynne Ramsay. With her first three feature films - Ratcatcher (1999), Morvern Callar (2002) and We Need to Talk about Kevin (2011) - she built up a reputation as a serious filmmaker of considerable ambition, more artist than creator of commercial works. That said, You Were Never Really Here is not the kind of work that one would expect from her. For one thing, it is very much a New York tale set in the underbelly of the city, for which reason it has been compared with what is in many respects but not in all a very different film, Scorsese’s 1976 classic Taxi Driver.

 

The story told in You Were Never Really Here is much more conventional than the way in which it is told. Its central figure, known to us only as Joe, is played by Joaquin Phoenix. The opening may be stylised but we know from the outset that he is a man for hire, an outwardly tough character ready to kill. Consequently a senator (Alex Manette) employs Joe when his young daughter, Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov) goes missing and appears to have been seized to be placed in a brothel that supplies girls for paedophiles. The senator wants his daughter back but also expresses the wish that those who took her should be hurt.

 

Ramsay’s film functions from Joe’s viewpoint but his past history, represented only by memory shots, is for us to piece together. We may conclude that experiences in the Gulf War have unhinged him and have driven him to see only the dark side of life. In addition, we witness his fetishistic preoccupation with self-asphyxiation and become aware of his suicidal thoughts. The essence of all this is conveyed by Phoenix’s intense and masterly performance even if the often vague background details leave much up to the audience (in contrast Joe’s more sensitive side emerges clearly in scenes with his mother played by Judith Roberts).

 

What is up front, however, is a relatively standard thriller tale telling of an assignment that goes wrong: consequently one tends to think of You Were Never Really Here as a fascinating triumph of style over content. In taking an American crime story into fresh areas in a somewhat avant-garde style it echoes John Boorman’s Point Blank (1967). Here, however, the music score by Jonny Greenwood is given such a vital role that it prompts comparison with 2013’s Under the Skin in which Mica Levi’s score was no less crucial to the impact created. Ultimately, though, this film is very much its own thing, the creation of a distinctive assured filmmaker but a piece that won’t appeal to all equally. In its own way, it is terrific, even if I question its actual depth while also adding that it comes up with what I regard as a perfect ending only to follow it with a final scene that is surprising but arguably less effective.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Ekaterina Samsonov, Judith Roberts, John Doman, Alessandro Nivola, Alex Manette, Frank Pando, Silvia Pena, Dante Pereira-Olson, Vinicius Damasceno.

 

Dir Lynne Ramsay, Pro Rosa Attab, Pascal Caucheteux, James Wilson, Rebecca O’Brien and Lynne Ramsay, Screenplay Lynne Ramsay, from the novel by Jonathan Ames, Ph Thomas Townend, Pro Des Tim Grimes, Ed Joe Bini, Music Jonny Greenwood, Costumes Malgosia Turzanska.

 

Film4/Why Not Productions/BFI-StudioCanal.
89 mins. UK/France/USA. 2017. Rel: 9 March 2018. Cert. 15.