‘The plot is stripped to the bone, and it’s all in the execution’ – MacDara Conroy on Lynne Ramsay’s superlative thriller You Were Never Really Here
Violence is a hallmark in the work of director Lynne Ramsay, whether it’s the metaphorical class violence of her debut Ratcatcher, or the more explicit violence of mass murder and its aftermath in We Need to Talk About Kevin, her version of Lionel Shriver’s Orange Prize winning novel. Seven years since that critical hit, and following some time in the cinematic wilderness, Ramsay returns with a sharper focus and her most direct meditation on violence yet in You Were Never Really Here, a film lauded at Cannes last summer before it was even finished. And with good reason.
Adapting Jonathan Ames’ neo-noir novella about a combat wounded veteran caught up in a child sex trafficking nightmare, Ramsay deftly weaves what’s on the surface a pulpy exploitation story with cutting commentary on the evil that men do, and a stream-of-consciousness dream logic that blessedly doesn’t work at odds with the cold realism of the world at hand. Where Ratcatcher was overt in its freedom symbolism, Morvern Callar was about the rewriting of the self, and We Need to Talk About Kevin dealt in restrained but heightened moods and caricatures of evil, You Were Never Really Here feels more grounded in comparison, despite the slow trickle of detail, especially about our main protagonist.
Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) sublimates the pain from the psychic wounds of his life, of which we see brief glimpses in flashback, into his job as a mercenary extraction specialist. He does what’s required, takes his payment from a middle man, and keeps his home life as separate as possible from the wetwork. Returning to New York from an assignment out of state, Joe is called upon to rescue Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), the runaway teenage daughter of an ambitious politician (Alex Manette), from a high-class brothel hiding in plain sight. But when Joe’s actions disturb a conspiracy among the city’s elite, things get personal on a profound level.
To say much more than that would be to give away the whole story; the plot is stripped to the bone, and it’s all in the execution. Both figuratively and literally. Ramsay as a filmmaker understands that violence is more than just gore and noise; it’s the damage that lasts physically, mentally, emotionally after the fact. Like her previous films, for the most part the acts of destruction depicted are kept to the margins, or otherwise obscured; one set-piece is seen through glimpses of security camera footage.
The ramifications of that violence, however, hold nothing back. As exhilarating as it is to follow Joe as he goes about his brutal work with surgical precision — as precise as one can be with a hammer — it’s a feeling that quickly slips into claustrophobia when the viewer realises they’re trapped not only in a series of mounting horrors, but also in Joe’s head full of trauma. Phoenix essays that damage to outstanding effect as a modern-day Travis Bickle, lost amid echoes of 1970s paranoia thrillers and increasingly vulnerable to the tricks of his fragile mind.
But Phoenix doesn’t do it alone. Thomas Townend’s cinematography is rich in the lurid glow of the city; Jonny Greenwood’s haunting score pulses and drones in all the right moments around the stark sound design. And editor Joe Bini, who worked with the director on her previous film, stitches it all together with an intimate appreciation for Ramsay’s vision, which is ultimately better defined by that other hallmark of her work: the drive to start anew, of hope against the odds, even if left unresolved.
You Were Never Really Here opens at the Light House and Cineworld in Dublin, Pálás in Galway, QFT in Belfast and selected cinemas nationwide on Friday March 9th
Also published on Medium.