In 2011, auteur Lynne Ramsay gave us one of the most horrifying and unsettling films this century with We Need to Talk About Kevin. It’s one of the few films I’m almost glad I didn’t see in theaters, because when I watched it at home for the first time I had to take breaks to decompress. After 6 long years, we get another visceral, brutal and confounding work that only she could deliver in You Were Never Really Here.
Adapted from the novella by Jonathan Ames, the film follows Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), a tormented and violent loner who rescues girls from brothels for a living. His latest job has gone haywire when the father who hired him ends up dead and men come to kill him and kidnap the girl, Nina, who he’s rescued.
We’ve never seen Joaquin Phoenix like this before. He’s one of the best American actors working, you never see him do the same role twice, and his performance as Joe adds new dimensions to his repertoire with his most physically intense role to date. We’ve never seen Phoenix really transform his body for a role, and here his physicality tells you so much about Joe. His skin is laced with various scars, and his muscles seem overgrown like they weigh him down. He doesn’t seem to blink the entire film, his eyes searching for something to like about humanity. His mangy beard and hair as well as the grubby way he dresses signifies he’s retreated from society. This is a man who is ready to die and be done with all these people. This is Phoenix performing with pure physicality, and it’s marvelous to watch.
There are shades of Taxi Driver and Drive here in its isolated protagonist and the way the violence is brutal yet gorgeously shot by cinematographer Thomas Townend. Ramsay directs this film like if Taken were a hazy nightmare, a descent into hell, an absence of soul. It starts off on familiar enough terms with the setup of him rescuing this girl, then as the film keeps going it just keeps getting more and more abstract and experimental. This could have been a trainwreck, yet with with Ramsay it’s quite hypnotic and striking the more bonkers she gets with it. She and editor Joe Bini never let a scene play out in the safest way, they always cut abruptly to other sequences to keep the audience on edge. Jonny Greenwood scoring a film is always a treat, and his score is mystifying and horrifyingly tense as it cuts in and out at random.
I had read the novella by Jonathan Ames so I had a sense of what was going on, but I feel that if you haven’t read the novel, there’s a good 2/3rds of the film that you’ll have no clue about. I could honestly barely follow it at points and I actually knew what was coming. This is fine, a film shouldn’t be expected to be all things to all people, but I do worry that it overextends its obtuseness at the cost of finding an audience. All the same though, I’m happy that a studio like Amazon has picked up this bizarre film and will give it a worthy theatrical release. Lynne Ramsay is a filmmaker we don’t get enough of, and You Were Never Really Here is not a film you can forget. It’s an uncompromising work from a visionary filmmaker, and I can only hope we don’t have to wait another 6 years for more Lynne Ramsay.