Joaquin Phoenix is at a career best in You Were Never Really Here

Joaquin Phoenix won the Best Actor award at the Cannes film festival in 2017. Andrew Carroll reviews You Were Never Really Here to see if it lives up to the hype

Tales about aging trauma victims saving traumatised young girls from further distress are older than cinema itself. In 2017 three high budget, critically lauded films of this same niche were released: Logan, Blade of the Immortal and You Were Never Really Here. It was the latter that stood out on the festival circuit winning Best Screenplay for writer/director Lynne Ramsay and Best Actor for Joaquin Phoenix at Cannes. Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here came out last Friday and should be the example as to why these films are still taken so seriously.

Joaquin Phoenix plays Joe, a former soldier and FBI agent turned hitman. Joe saves girls abducted and sold into prostitution as well as murdering the kidnappers in brutal fashion. When Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), the daughter of a New York senator, is kidnapped, Joe is called in to rescue Nina and kill the abductors. When the job goes wrong Joe is left fighting to save Nina, his frail mother and himself.

Director and writer Lynne Ramsay has made only four films in the space of a twenty-five year career. Each one is a labour of love. Ramsay creates living breathing alternate realities, darker reflections of our own world. Her third and most well-known film We Need to Talk About Kevin is the best evidence of this. You Were Never Really Here seems to begin almost normally compared to the nightmarish qualities of her previous work.

Joe suffers from his own waking nightmares. He has PTSD flashbacks to a murdered child in Iraq and dead immigrants suffocated in a shipping container. The closer Joe becomes to Nina the more his own abusive past raises its head. The prosthetic scars on Joaquin Phoenix’s body are superficial but his character’s psychological scars run far deeper. It is testament to Phoenix’s physical presence that he can communicate this pain so vividly with his body because dialogue in a film so silent would only trivialise it.

“It is testament to Phoenix’s physical presence that he can communicate this pain so vividly”

Though the character’s rarely speak, it is never without purpose. Exchanges between Joe and his mother (Judith Roberts) as well as Joe and Nina are sweet and offer pinpoints of light on the film’s dark, depraved canvas. Elsewhere Ramsay wrings tension from the moments before the film’s brief and brutal explosions of violence. The suspense before a stairwell shootout could be cut with a knife whereas a silent brawl on CCTV cameras allowed me to imagine the grunts of pain and thudding impact of Joe’s trademark hammer before I eventually heard them later on.

Much has been made of the score by Jonny Greenwood – the bass player from Radiohead – and it delivers. As abstract as the film’s later imagery Greenwood’s score pulses and whines as Joe makes his way through New York. Electronic drums stutter and start before giving way to quick blasts of noisy bass as Ramsay jump-cuts to Joe’s painful past. Greenwood’s music haunts the films more tranquil scenes. Thudding drums and squealing violins disturb the peace of a water burial and elsewhere a song sung by killer and victim lends some dark-as-night humour to proceedings.

You Were Never Really Here is a dark, bloody film but the darkness is often more obvious than the blood as we often only see the results of violence rather than violence in action. This conceit is helped by the film’s lean runtime. At only 90 minutes Ramsay doesn’t waste a frame. Rather than being economical in length her film is just as long as it needs to be thanks to the rapid fire but sensical editing of Joe Bini. Ramsay and her collaborators understand what it means to make an audience gasp as well as how beneficial it is to let them breathe.

You Were Never Really Here is not for the faint of heart. It may be about an assassin with a genuine conscience but it never lets it’s audience forget what he is willing to do to satisfy his conscience. With that said, Lynne Ramsay’s evocative and emotionally powerful thriller is the best film I’ve seen so far this year and is without a doubt her best film yet. You Were Never Really Here plumbs the darkest depths of the human soul but it’s brief glances at the light are where it truly shines.

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