Director Lynne Ramsay proves there is still life in the revenge thriller yet with her latest project You Were Never Really Here. Based on the novella by Jonathan Ames, the plot follows Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), a former Marine and FBI agent who is tortured by the violence he has witnessed. When he returns from duty he becomes a contract killer who focusses on breaking down paedophile rings and rescuing the young girls who are helplessly trapped within them.
In preparation for the role Phoenix puts of a staggering amount of weight in both fat and muscle and when combined with the mass of facial hair he is almost unrecognisable. Joe has very few lines of dialogue in the film and he instead conveys emotion through body language, facial expression and an intent to his movement that is terrifying. The nature of this role suits Phoenix, who has mastered the skill of evoking so much by doing very little.
Even in the lighter scenes where he is singing a song with his elderly mother, his massive frame and haunting expression keeps me unsettled, always expecting something to be waiting around the corner. In the dark lurks disturbing flashbacks to Joe’s past. Unlike traditional flashbacks that only serve to throw exposition at the audience, the ones here are sliced into fragments and are spattered chaotically to reflect on the character whose memory they depict. We see a hammer-wielding father who beat his wife and son, and the monstrosities he witnessed in the Middle East.
When he picks up a new contract, it turns out that the man ordering the hit is a Senator whose daughter Nina was kidnapped to be a part of a Manhattan-based brothel. “They say that you’re brutal,” the Senator says, after a brooding-filled pause Joe replies “I can be”. The ring that Joe begins to shatter turns out to have far bigger political ties than just the Senator who’s daughter has been taken. It’s sad that such a twisted and evil story can mirror similar events in real life as high profile arrests and accusations of paedophilic activities are not a rarity, even with politicians.
The fantastic editing work done by Ramsay and Joe Bini lays at the core of the film’s success. It keeps the plot ticking over whilst also weaving the nightmarish flashbacks. The effect is almost hallucinatory and exacerbates the metaphorical punch packed. Johnny Greenwood, who composed a sumptuous score for Paul Thomas Anderson’ Phantom Thread, steps in again here but he produces a something very different. Similar to Hans Zimmer’s work for Blade Runner 2049, Greenwood builds a brutalist soundscape that feeds into this hallucinatory feeling. Nothing in this world feels real. Even a simple photograph becomes a horrific reminder of a mass murder.
At a touch under 90 minutes in length, You Were Never Really Here does not overstay its welcome. In fact, you could argue it is too short. There’s so much left unexplored in the character of Joe that the film could double in size and still not drag, a testament to the powerful performance by Phoenix and the deeply visceral viewing experience that Ramsay creates. If you saw Joaquin Phoenix bounding down a corridor wielding a hammer you would truly wish you were never here.