You Were Never Really Here is a mesmerising character study of a troubled man at the end of his tether, a new kind of action movie by Scottish writer-director Lynne Ramsey, in which the story is told in impressionistic fragments and the audience has to make sense of them. It is both brutal and beautiful, with an extraordinary physical performance by Joaquin Phoenix, whose barely-contained suffering is matched by Jonny Greenwood’s evocative score.
Phoenix plays Joe, a grizzly bear-like enforcer, who seems to specialise in rescuing young women from the hellish New York underworld. He is hired by a State Senator to rescue his teenage daughter, Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), from a brothel specialising in underage girls. ‘I want you to hurt them,’ orders the Senator. There follows a trail of violence and anguish, as Joe struggles to do the right thing, and hold himself together.
Critics have noted the similarities between You Were Never Really Here and Martin Scorsese’s classic Taxi Driver (1976). Both contain unhinged war veteran anti-heroes who are on a mission to ‘wash the scum off the streets’ and both contain grainy shots of New York at night, as seen from a moving car. But Ramsey’s film is more meditative, has little dialogue, and only really gives us two shocking moments of violence. Unlike the lurid bloodbath at the end of Taxi Driver, most of the violence in her film happens off-screen or is glimpsed through the grey lens of a hotel’s CCTV system.
Any nastiness is made bearable by frequent zen-like pauses in which the camera lingers on buildings, rooms or inanimate objects. Ramsey, who started her career as a still photographer, brings an artistic sensibility to her first action movie, making it more interesting than its generic source material, Jonathan Ames’ pulp-fiction page-turner.
Joaquin Phoenix brings authenticity to the role, transforming himself into a grey-bearded beast in scuffed brown workboots, a man of few words, who suffers his own demons intensely, yet who is capable of tenderness and redemption. He is kind to girls, cats and his mum, helping her clean her bathroom and fridge (‘this cream cheese is from 1972’). But Joe is tormented by flashbacks to war horrors and the childhood abuse he and his mother endured at the hands of his father.
This psychic disturbance is soundtracked by Jonny Greenwood’s dissonant score, often sounding like a primary school music lesson – painful violin-slashing and out-of-time, out-of-tune guitar noodling, which nevertheless sounds great when a pulsing drum machine or synth line is added. Greenwood is a gifted musical ‘commentator’, adding aural drama to the visuals. This talent was clear from early Radiohead hit, Creep, in which guitarist Greenwood added a ‘nervous tic’ noise just before the confessional chorus. He made a good song great and he repeats the trick here.
Ramsey has described You Were Never Really Here as a character study of mid-life crisis, of a man who is ‘a bit like a ghost in his own life.’ She also sees it as a film ‘about now – about nothing being black and white anymore’. With its theme of trauma begetting more trauma, it has echoes of the recent award-winning Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. There is also an underwater scene that brings to mind Oscar-winner The Shape of Water.
Perhaps Ramsey, Phoenix and Greenwood will also be celebrating when the awards season comes around again next year.