Cinema Review: You Were Never Really Here

Posted 10 months ago in Cinema Reviews

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Director: Lynne Ramsey

Talent: Joaquin Phoenix, Ekaterina Samsonov

Released: 9 March

A thumbnail sketch of this film’s plot could make it sound derivative: Travis Bickle comes to mind when you think of a traumatised Gulf War veteran named Joe (Phoenix) who’s unafraid of violence and saves girls from paedophile sex rings. Nothing prepares you, however, for the utterly distinctive experience this intense 95 minutes has to offer.

Ramsay begins as she proceeds, with elliptical shots: Joe asphyxiating himself in a plastic bag, a burning photograph of an Asian girl, a bloodied hammer, all topped off with a deranged Johnny Greenwood score punctuated by Joe’s self-directed deprecations on the soundtrack.

Immediately, we realise we’re watching something made by a singular artist. More attention is given to life’s little non-sequiturs than the noir genre plot from which these scenes dangle. In drawing attention to the incongruous banalities of the everyday, the film becomes utterly convincing and all the more gripping. Joe squeezes a jelly bean between his fingers for no particular reason; we watch a taxi driver sing for an extended period; a group of tourists ask Joe to take their picture. Her characters are fully-embodied people who notice the food that’s put down in front of them and actually eat it, even when they’re being tasked with a violent assignment.

Ramsay achieves a neat trick here: a brutal film that is also beautiful, and this beauty is often to do with how delicately the brutality is depicted. In one sequence, through surveillance footage, we bear witness to Joe wreaking his savagery on security guards at a brothel. We can only catch quick glimpses of his dispatching of each man before it cuts away to static shots of empty hallways. The effect is riveting.

Ramsay shows similar judiciousness with regards to characterisation. She foregoes biographical exposition in favour of shards of backstory that tear their way unbidden into Joe’s consciousness. By doing so, the effect is much more immediate than it would be if Joe’s backstory was made explicit. Instead of knowing exactly what Joe is repressing, we experience the very act of repressing. We get a flash of Joe screaming as a boy while his father abuses his mother; we see a civilian corpse twitching during the Gulf War. Since we don’t know the exact nature of some of these tortures Joe’s lugging around, we feel them all the more.

If there’s a downside, some viewers might feel they’re not being let in on enough. But, were too many concessions made to narrative coherence, it just wouldn’t be the same film. Besides, I suspect the pulpy plot that’s submerged under these evocative scenes would probably come up short if it was to see more light. A good thing then Ramsey opted to paper over them with her stunning impressionism and by keeping the focus on Joe’s subjectivity.

And what a performance it is by Phoenix, right up there with his depiction of Freddy Quell in The Master. He brings a curious thoughtfulness and vulnerability to his portrayal of a man whose monstrous side is never far from the surface. One scene of unexpected tenderness between Joe and a man who he has every reason to hate really floored me. Though Ramsay doesn’t scrimp on the darkness, she allows for cracks to let the light in. This ability to modulate is the genius of the film.

Between actor and director, here are two artists at the peak of their powers.

Words – Rory Kiberd

Illustration: Cesca Saunders


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