YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE
Director: Lynne Ramsay
Screenwriter: Lynne Ramsay, based on the novel by Jonathan Ames.
Runtime: 89 mins.
Australian release date: 6 September 2018
Previewed at: The Chauvel Cinema, Sydney, on 6 September 2018.
Diminutive Scottish director Lynne Ramsay seems to specialise in films dealing with trauma, the damage it does to people and their ability to overcome it... or not. Her feature films, all of which she's written herself or co-scripted from novels, focus on protagonists who have been severely affected by traumatic events in their lives or their upbringing, and her latest, You Were Never Really Here, is no exception. You begin to consider that Ramsay may be drawing on her own past when she conjures up these dark themes. Whether that's the case or not, from James in her debut film Ratcatcher, through Morven in Morvern Callar, her sophomore effort, to Eva in We Need to Talk About Kevin, and now Joe, Joachim Phoenix's tormented avenging angel, Ramsay's subjects are battling effects that have been caused by terrible circumstances inflicted on them by others.
When we first meet the scarred and pony-tailed Joe (Phoenix at his very best), he's in Cincinnati rescuing a young girl by brutally disposing of the paedophile preying on her. His weapon of choice is a ball-peen hammer, so there's no mistaking that this is a man who's not to be messed with. A stray mugger who attacks Joe on the street as he's exiting the scene of the crime quickly learns this lesson. Back on his home turf in New York, we see another side of this violent man as he gently interacts with his elderly, slightly delusional mother (the fabulous Judith Roberts) and we begin to comprehend, through flashback visions in Joe's head, that he and his mum were the victims of a violent father and husband. Joe's way of coping with the brutality of his childhood is, firstly, to self-harm by auto-asphyxiation, and secondly, to hire himself out as a hit-man specialising in the slaughter of perverts who sexually abuse children. His victims are pointed out to him by McLeary (John Doman), a mysterious man who's hired by the parents of runaways or children who have been abducted. When McLeary brings him a case involving the missing daughter (Ekaterina Samsonov) of a US senator, things start to spiral out of control and the voice in Joe's head keeps asking him, “What the fuck are we doing?”
If you're starting to think, haven't we seen similar stories in movies like Chinatown and others, don't! You’ve never seen anything quite like Ramsay's film before; it’s certainly no ordinary revenge/whodunit flick. For starters, Paul Davies' extraordinary sound design puts you right inside Joe's off-kilter head. Traffic noise, voices and the everyday sounds of the city are heightened in his mind and the strange soundtrack by Jonny Greenwood (of Radiohead fame) also contributes to our understanding of the confusion in Joe's brain. He's methodical and intelligent but also very damaged and his demons often overwhelm him. Then there's the editing of Joe Bini, who previously collaborated with Ramsay on We Need to Talk About Kevin, and the lensing of Tom Townend, who also worked on Kevin. Both contribute significantly to conveying the dysfunctional, somewhat deranged cityscape that makes up Joe's worldview. Finally, and most importantly, Phoenix's blistering portrayal makes you empathise with this sensitive, tortured soul, in spite of his heinous crimes. In few words, the actor manages to transmit exactly what's going on in his character's mind and reveal his wounded humanity. It's a brilliant performance.
You Were Never Really Here is only Lynne Ramsay's fourth feature film, which is hard to comprehend given her unique vision and her masterly handling of difficult material. Let's hope we see much more of her work in the future. Filmmakers like this don't come along too often.