You Were Never Really Here (2018)
Director: Lynne Ramsay
Writer: Lynne Ramsay, Jonathon Ames (based of the novel by)
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Judith Roberts, Ekaterina Samsonov, John Doman, Alex Manette
Lynne Ramsay's incredible character study is a hammer blow struck in slow-motion.
You Were Never Really Here is a short, sharp, gritty crime drama, one which is brutal without over-indulging in violence and shocking but mainly through suggestion. It's not explicit, but it doesn't need to be, still possessing the same power as some more visually aggressive crime dramas. Confidently broaching various subjects including sex trafficking, domestic violence, self-harm and suicide, You Were Never Really Here is not a cheerful viewing experience, but one which demonstrates a sublime combination of exceptional direction and dedicated acting.
Ramsay's latest film is a tremendously character-driven story, with its plot - while being captivating and well written - mainly serving as context rather than being the film's driving force. Instead, it is the performance submitted by Joaquin Phoenix which is the engine that pushes this film forward, and his tortured portrayal of hired gun Joe is one which is truly transformative, both physically and psychologically. Our rugged protagonist is initially surrounded by an air of mystery, and the film is reluctant to give away anything about him - even his face is hidden out of shot for the first few minutes. The film keeps us at a distance from Phoenix's mysterious role, only allowing us to better understand him through a series of fleeting but incredibly informative flashbacks with which we can assemble a spotty backstory. Throughout the film's relatively short runtime Joe wrestles with rage, with tenderness and with despair, while also demonstrating a psychopathically violent nature. Over the course of the film, we are given an acute but fraught look into the mind of a dangerously complex and self-destructive character - one who is addictively watchable throughout.
It is a film which likes to take its time, preferring to walk rather than run, never getting carried away or over-excited. It's thrilling without being a thriller, having a steady pace throughout which allows for a deep exploration of its central character while also moving the story along. You Were Never Really Here has a lot to say, and takes the necessary time to offload while still being utterly and inescapably gripping.
It is also an expressive film, having several different faces. It is tense and hostile throughout, being predominantly set within run-down neighbourhoods smothered by overcast skies, but this tension allows space for some more pensive moments without surrendering any of its power. At times it is gentle, with moments of tenderness delicately built into the moody backdrop. The more brutal scenes are a stark contrast, making Joe's hammer-wielding ruthlessness all the more shocking, and much like the character at the film's centre, You Were Never Really Here also demonstrates that it is capable of more than one emotion.
Contributing to this constant tension is its phenomenal and frustratingly erratic score, attributable to Jonny Greenwood. It is a beautiful mess, often made up solely by a farrago of whining strings, or irregular, punching drum beats, all of which refuse to conform to any kind of identifiable rhythm. It never seems to settle into something comfortable, resulting in the viewer also being unable to settle, and seems to poetically mirror the scrambled nature of the lead character.
Despite Phoenix taking up the majority of the focus of this film, it is not without other noteworthy performances. Limited though her screen time may be, Ekaterina Samsonov's damaged portrayal of the abused Nina is particularly heartbreaking. In keeping with the rest of the film, much of her situation is only implied, but this lack of any direct explanation may make her vacant and mostly silent performance all the more powerful and upsetting to observe. Ramsay has absolutely nailed the concept of 'less is more', with the film's implicit approach allowing the audience the chance to use their imagination which allows them to feel much more involved.
You Were Never Really Here is the story of one of the most fascinating characters in recent years, and places a huge amount of emphasis on exploring this characters distressing backstory. It is a grim film, but has achieved such a bleak tone with a level of sophistication; instead of showing every explicit detail, it allows the viewer to fill in the gaps with their imagination, ultimately making the story far more potent. It won't take you on a wild ride but, by the film's end, you will feel as if it had.
In one line: With a fantastic lead performance and a quietly vicious and shocking story, You Were Never Really Here is a quietly powerful character study which delivers each of its forceful blows with lethal precision.