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United Kingdom/France/USA 2017
Directed by
Lynne Ramsay
95 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3.5 stars

You Were Never Really Here

Synopsis: A troubled veteran, Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), supports himself and his aged mother (Judith Roberts) by recovering missing girls who have been forced into prostitution. When a job spins out of control he finds himself caught in a spiral of deadly violence.

Scottish writer-director Lynne Ramsay is evidently a big fan of the work of the Davids, Lynch and Cronenberg. Their fingerprints are, as it were, all over You Were Never Really Here.  From the callous sex-trafficking of Eastern Promises (2006) and the faux-sweet pop-inflected depravity of Blue Velvet (1986), to the hallucinatory disruptions and ellipses of Inland Empire (2006), Ramsay’s film owes much to these two auteurs of the dark side (one might also mention the bilious greens and Edith Scob's white hair from Leo Carax’s Holy Motors, 2012). In one respect the result is a refreshingly different treatment of what could have been a very ordinary Hollywood thriller.  From another perspective for all its dexterity it feels overly much like a film “in the manner of…” rather than one which has its own voice.

Working from a 2013 novel by Jonathan Ames, Ramsay bends over backwards to dislocate our bearings. Indeed it is only after about twenty minutes that we understand what the opening scenes, which in hindsight very effectively tell us about Joe’s métier and mental state, were about.

More concerned with portraying Joe’s strung-out psyche than stepping through a by-the-book plot, Ramsay brings us into his disturbed world very economically using brief flashbacks to reveal Joe’s painful childhood in which he and his mother suffered physical abuse at the hands of his father and his traumatic experience during some Middle Eastern tour of duty. She is well-aided in this by the film’s composer, celebrated Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood, who had scored her 2011 film We Need to Talk About Kevin and cinematographer Thomas Townend whose grainy low-fi visuals perfectly match the cheerless story. Mention should also be made of Paul Davies’ sound design and Joe Bini’s editing.

With these ingredients, Ramsay, much like Scorsese in Taxi Driver (1976) creates an intense and threatening atmosphere for her protagonist’s hellish odyssey. As Joe, a Travis Bickle for the new millennium, a bulked-up Phoenix gives a rivetting performance as a man who has lost the ability to feel, his mind as scarred as his body. And this, once again, refreshingly, is achieved with very little dialogue and no expositionary in-fill. Joe is inarticulate in his suffering and all the more frightening and deserving of our sympathy because of it (Ramsay won Best Screenplay and Phoenix Best Actor at Cannes 2017)

For all that Ramsay achieves with this film however one can’t help but feel that it could have been more than what it is, a boldly stylish genre piece. This is so particularly thanks to the closing sequence in which yet again the director goes for a Lynchian musical counterpoint mixing tragedy with irony but coming across more as unwisely flippant as she drops Joe and the girl (played Ekaterina Samsonov, making her first screen appearance) he has rescued in that classic genre setting, the diner, and plays with alternative endings that might or might not offer at least some kind of redemption for Joe.  Joe (and Phoenix), who has gone through the film toying with suicide, deserved better than a last loud suck on his milkshake to the toe-tapping rhythms of a 1950s pop hit. Had Ramsay taken her protagonist more seriously her film might have had more emotional clout.

You Were Never Really Here has been rapturously reviewed overseas and apparently it received a seven-minute standing ovation at its Cannes premiere. Sounds good but it is very much a cinéaste’s film so if you're looking for simple pleasures. Mission, Impossible No. Whatever would be a safer bet. .

FYI: Jonny Greenwood also scored Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master (2012) and Inherent Vice (2015) both of which starred Phoenix.




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