Lynne Ramsay’s new film nods heavily to Taxi Driver but offers a pleasingly individual and characterful take on isolation and trauma. It is taut and considered, carefully brutal, and produces a number of artfully crafted and sensitive shocks.
Joaquin Phoenix is Joe, a quiet veteran who lives with his aging and declining mother in New York. His income stream, however, comes through the grim work of retrieval. He is a gun for hire with a specialism for returning kidnapped children to their rich families.
Joe lives a profoundly anxious life, terrified by PTSD, and constantly fearing discovery of his employment. Phoenix is simply fantastic in this role, a hulking man whose body isn’t as lean as he remembers it being, but still does the job. He is tender, loving and vulnerable in the extreme, and Ramsay gives us the time to appreciate this in his willingness to forgive and in the quiet details of his routines.
Lines of work don’t come more hazardous than his, though, and the film’s central rescue job spirals out of Joe’s control after an assured initial operation. As his life is torn asunder, the other side of Phoenix’s performance comes to the fore – a seething and barely controlled rage. Urging himself into action, his revenge is piecemeal and haphazard.
The violent acts of which Joe is capable form another sublime act of deftness from Ramsay. Her restraint lends the film a superb control and sway over the viewer. Though terribly brutal moments occur, they are rarely full-frontal, often obscured and generally only shocking to the precise extent desired by the director. A home invasion viewed through rotating CCTV shots provides a bravura example.
Indeed, You Were Never Really Here saves a superb faux-twist for its final moments that perfectly demonstrates this consideration. We are confronted by the total and explicit violence of a character’s impulses, before rapidly realising the implications and ramifications of what we’ve actually seen.
Pushing along with the film’s sometimes breakneck and often measured pace is another wonderful score from Jonny Greenwood, who has followed his superlative work on Phantom Thread with another top-class effort. Squeaking and popping, the synth-and-strings stylings are a perfect match for the uneasy mood of the picture. Greenwood’s film credits read like a list of masterworks, and his now-repeated work with Paul Thomas Anderson and Ramsay herself is demonstrating a clear artistic connection with these auteurs.
Ramsay, with the help of cinematographer Thomas Townsend, is similarly impressive in her character work here, offering frequent long shots of Joe as he reacts to events surprising and depressing, and as he struggles through an asphyxiatingly stressful sequence of ordeals. Quiet moments are offered frequently, and set-piece events play out with a novel lack of build-up. This is a carefully paced and plotted journey, and Ramsay is at pains to allow her film the time to benefit from its framing and lighting, and reaps the benefits.
You Were Never Really Here threatens gore and sadism, but delivers a far more satisfying melange of compassion and stress. Joe’s humanity is upsettingly real despite his capacity for violence, and the justification of his actions lends him a martyr’s air. The film is an understated and empathetic character study, and rewards a trusting audience with a fulfilling examination of a damaged man.