In nearly two decades and only four feature films there is no director that can match Lynne Ramsay. From her debut Ratcatcher, through Morven Caller and We Need to Talk About Kevin, the Scottish director has shown an unparalleled flair for stories of characters that are somehow cut of from traditional society, told with a visual style that suits these characters rather than suggesting a definitive directorial voice. More than any other director, it’s Ramsay’s characters, along with some truly beautiful images, that define her output. She doesn’t go for flashy camera moves and big spectacle (which is the main reason she is still outside the mainstream), instead she finds a kind of hyperrealism by taking her characters and their stories as seriously as possible. Which brings us to the utterly devastating action thriller, you Were Never Really Here.
You Were Never Really Here is almost an anti-action film starring Joaquin Phoenix as a man that saves kidnapped children from paedophiles. His character is named Joe, an unassuming name for a beast of a man, Joe does what he does not for the money, but as an outlet for his own abuse from his father, and traumatic experiences as a soldier. The film begins with Joe suffocating himself with a plastic bag, hardly the actions of a grizzled anti-hero, in order to calm down. He is frequently assaulted by memories of his past abuse: shockingly rendered by Joe Bini’s savage editing, and frequently toys with the idea of inflicting violence on himself.
The first third of the film presents Joe’s life in detail: showing an isolated soul that, due to his often taking down powerful people, wants to keep himself and his mother of the grid. Not a fan of technology, Joe uses payphones and, despite his army training, bypasses guns for a ball pin hammer. The comparisons to Travis Bickle are obvious, but You Were Never Really Here digs deeper into Joe thanks to his flashbacks and obvious symptoms of PTSD, whereas Scorsese and De Niro left a lot of Bickle’s psychology to the viewers interpretation. Once he is given his next job, to find a Senator’s daughter and kill the people who took her, that You Were Never Really Here turns up the heat.
One of Lynne Ramsay’s main skills as a director is her perfect casting: she is the woman that helped make Tilda Swinton convincingly human in We Need to Talk about Kevin, and Phoenix may be her best collaborator yet. Certainly one of the best actors around, You Were Never Really Here is surprisingly new territory for Phoenix. If anything, his performance as strives for the kind of realism that these types of anti-heroes never achieve. Joe isn’t an Adonis figure with sculpted abs that take about a year of constant training to get. Instead, he has a doughy yet strong physique, with piercing, wolf-like eyes shining out of a dishevelled face. It’s a towering performance, full of fury and sensitivity that only Phoenix could pull off, especially in the scenes he shares with kidnap victim, Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov, brilliant).
Ramsay’s direction matches Phoenix’s performance in every way, as she finds unconventional methods of direction that elevate the material from the kind of schlocky film with much of then same subject matter (I’m talking about you, Mute). The violence is shocking, but not exploitative, and the exploration into the horrible places that ~Joe saves children from is done with taste.
You Were Never Really Here is the rarest of films: a poetic, psychologically dense action thriller with an awards-worthy central performance of a character, and a sensitive investigation into the cycle of both violence and abuse. I hope we don’t have to wait another six years before Ramsay’s next gift.