One of the most consistently undervalued British screen talents and a figure whose career has been sadly hampered by the constraints of the Hollywood machine (her original attachment to the film of Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones fell apart and her insane-sounding Moby Dick-in space remains in development hell), Scottish director Lynne Ramsay returns with her fourth feature, You Were Never Really Here.
Working from her own screenplay adapted from Jonathan Ames’ novella, Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here is a spartan yet intense thriller following Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), an avenging angel vigilante in New York who undertakes dangerous assignments to liberate kidnapped and sexually exploited children. Having developed a reputation for the brutality of his methods, Joe is hired by a Senator to trace his missing teenage daughter, making sure he truly “hurts” those responsible. However, Joe’s best-laid plans will soon go awry when more sinister forces reveal themselves.
Ramsay’s principal strength as a storyteller is her epitomising of the “show, don’t tell” philosophy whereby she refuses to spoon-feed her audience with overly expository dialogue and eloquent speechifying, preferring to utilise a mosaic-effect of fragmentary images in her films and editing sequences in flashes that skirt around any sort of definitive reveal. Ramsay’s style, while undoubtedly poetic, nevertheless results in a rewardingly condensed and focused filmmaking approach which, when applied to what is essentially the scenario of a Liam Neeson action thriller, elevates the material. A centrepiece fight scene where Joe efficiently despatches with a succession of sexual traffickers with a hammer promises a homage to Park Chan-Wook’s Oldboy. However, rather than a balletic orgy of gore, Ramsay depicts this sequence at a distance through monochrome static CCTV cameras. Joe’s incursions are often masked by walls, doorways or other blind spots. Meanwhile, the cameras cut away periodically to another angle within the apartment before returning to the original viewpoint where we see a henchman lying unconscious in a pool of blood. By situating the audience perspective at the borders of grotesque violence, both at a remove in the case of the CCTV cameras and in decontextualizing, arresting close-ups with the help of cinematographer Tom Townend, Ramsay conveys a more ruminative position on the effects of violence.
In a performance that netted him Best Actor at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, Phoenix is a shaggy husk, having little human contact beyond his invalid mother and his handler. In tandem with the storytelling approach of his director, Phoenix too opts to exhibit without saying much – Joe’s scarred torso, mumbling diction and fifty-yard stare suggest the accumulated destructive weight of a lifetime of violent acts. There is no explicit reason for Joe’s rationale in choosing this martyr-like existence; disassociated images of military patrols, dead bodies and self-asphyxiations in the face of parental abuse suggest atonement for a lifetime of personal sins. Phoenix to his credit chooses to supplement these evocations of a debilitating interior life with a paunchy stance and a laboured method of breathing. Moreover, the unkempt Phoenix often shrouds himself in hooded jumpers, baseball caps and towels, communicating the idea of a man yearning to disappear. While it is unlikely that he will bring the nuanced intensity of this performance to his rumoured portrayal of The Joker in an origin film set to be produced by Martin Scorsese, You Were Never Really Here further cements Phoenix’s status as a American acting titan.
Additionally, those left salving their wounds after Jonny Greenwood was once more denied an Academy Award for his lush Phantom Thread score can take comfort in the fact that his music for You Were Never Really Here is as equally radiant. Enhancing but not detracting from Ramsay’s sequences, Greenwood augments his typical repertoire of tortured strings with thunderous piano, synths and Roland 808 drum effects, building a soundscape that is as propulsive as it is dread-inducing. Significantly, the shimmering ‘Tree Strings’ and its pairing with a scene of an underwater burial creates one of the most indelible and emotional film moments of recent years.