With this daringly enigmatic thriller based on the short novel by Jonathan Ames, British filmmaker Lynne Ramsay is back on top form with a vengeance – quite literally, though that emotion is not hers but part of the story. You Were Never Really Here centres on burly,big-bearded, taciturn hitman Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), whom we encounter in the opening scene already carrying out a contract – though we never find out who the victim is or what it’s all about.
In fact, Ramsay’s film gives mere visual and aural hints as to Joe’s backstory, motives and character. All we know about Joe is that he lives with and cares for his elderly mother. Still, we do witness his dealings with a contractor, who lines up a job for him: to find the whereabouts of a politician’s abducted daughter.
Not wanting to distract us with the precise details of the storyline, or those of the world Joe inhabits, Ramsay focuses instead on his inner life. She uses Phoenix’s subtly expressive face and body language, a complex soundtrack and Thomas Townend’s wonderful cinematography to evoke his fragile state of mind.
Wisely, Ramsay doesn’t linger or focus on the violence, but implies it through expert editing and composition. Accordingly, what might have been an almost unbearably grim trip into a sordid underworld of corruption, cruel exploitation and brutality does, against all the odds, have a solid underpinning of compassion.
You Were Never Really Here makes for a hugely audacious, imaginative and strangely compelling movie.
The bottom line
A violent but poetic drama that’s a must-watch.