You Were Never Really Here is the fourth feature from Lynne Ramsay and is an adaptation of the novella by Jonathan Ames.
Joaquin Phoenix stars as Joe, a deeply traumatised ex-soldier who lives with his elderly mother and works as the hired muscle for a private investigator. A lucrative case comes his way as he is employed to locate Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), the runaway daughter of a local Senator. He is given an address and a request to exercise both discretion and brutality. To divulge any more would be to enter spoiler territory, but suffice it to say, the plot feels like an outtake from Frank Miller’s Sin City, and it takes us into some very dark territory where violence is ever present.
From the outset, You Were Never Really Here tells its story with a refreshing ambiguity. It does not divulge everything about Joe, but it tells us enough. Through fractured memory we learn Joe is a man haunted by the trauma of his past. We receive glimpses of the horror he underwent in the military and FBI, and through staccato flashback we are invited to trace this trauma further back to an abusive childhood. This drip feed of back story informs the audience through implication and educated assumption, rather than outright fact, but it allows us to piece together Joe’s character and history in jigsaw fashion. It brings to mind Jeff Nichols’ superb Midnight Special, which although science fiction, gave us character detail in the same languid style, allowing us a greater understanding of their motivation.
The revenge movie has had something of a renaissance of late. Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin, Panos Cosmatos’ Mandy and Coralie Fargeat’s Revenge all pepped up the genre by taking a simple plot, and doing far more with it than expected. And although not quite a revenge movie, You Were Never Really Here shares a lot of common ground with them, in particular it brings to mind the crunchy, vicious realism of Blue Ruin.
In terms of the narrative viewpoint, You Were Never Really Here is not omniscient (or God-like) because we never know more than Joe does. But neither is it first person, because although we get inside Joe’s head, we’re never fully there. It’s almost as if the audience plays the role of companion or sidekick ““ knowing as much about Joe as if we knew him in real life. As if he has told us of a dark history, without wanting to share the details.
Joe’s implied military history allows him to compartmentalise his work. He is robotically detached when his job requires violence ““ echoed by the sterile security camera point-of-view in one particular sequence. He is a tank. But in his downtime, and at home with his mother, he reveals tenderness and a brittle emotional state. He is scarred and haunted by this past he cannot escape; a past that is on constant rotation in his head. And Joaquin Phoenix is fantastic as he runs the whole gamut of these emotions. Dialogue is rationed so it’s quite remarkable that Phoenix can deliver such a mesmerising performance, particularly with half his face hidden behind a large beard. But he does so with utter conviction.
The rest of the cast is small, but Ekaterina Samsonov is excellent as Nina ““ bewildered and terrified but also strong and resilient. Fans of The Wire will also recognise the great John Doman as Joe’s boss, John.
The soundtrack, composed by Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood, is also worth noting. The pointy, jagged noise intrudes on Joe’s mission, before retreating to the background and settling into what might be considered more traditional songs. It complements the visuals perfectly as Ramsay composes a film that is both grotty and beautiful – whether its snatched glimpses of a post-homicide clean up, or a gorgeous, sunny, tree-lined lake.
Despite the dark subject matter, Ramsay has chosen to forego much of the violence in You Were Never Really Here. Although there is a considerable body count, we see almost none of the killing. The act itself is passed over; we see only the aftermath. It’s an interesting approach, one that is fully subscribed to the theory that there is no greater horror than that which unfolds in your own head. It’s a method that meshes perfectly with the narrative choices, giving us the important part of the story and letting the audience figure out the detail.
The small downside to this approach is that it does leave a couple of questions unanswered in terms of the plot, and a bit of an audience cheat late on is the only thing keeping You Were Never Really Here from achieving top marks. Otherwise, there is almost nothing to fault. At a brisk 89 minutes you’re already planning the re-watch before the credits roll.
You Were Never Really Here is both darkly violent and sadly reflective. Ramsay, in collaboration with Phoenix’s magnificent performance, has constructed a brutal, sparse noir that gets straight to the point and delivers a tough, uncompromising crime movie that’s one of 2018’s best.