Perhaps the most exciting thing about Lynne Ramsay’s long-awaited thriller You Were Never Really Here is just how full of surprises it is. The film begins in rather dark circumstances, as Joaquin Phoenix’s gun-for-hire (who mostly uses a hammer) Joe cleans up after a hit. But Ramsay relishes in what’s unexpected: this silent monster, a hulking mass of scars and hair, is more complicated than we’d expect – we see him crack jokes about Psycho with his elderly mother, but also regularly suffocate himself with a plastic bag.
There are similar moments throughout this film – to say much more would be to spoil the surprise – but the contrast between visceral violence and nastiness with sweetness transforms You Were Never Really Here from standard thriller fare into something much more memorable and lasting.
Of course everything does go wrong eventually, and the film turns from a surprisingly sweet look at the domestic life of a killer into a blood-strewn trip to hell. Ramsay keeps the audience removed from the violence; the closest thing to action the audience sees is Joe clearing out a house full of goons via CCTV footage.
We either see only glimpses or the ugly aftermath of violent acts, whether it’s shocking images of mauled hands or the lasting psychological trauma that haunts Joe. Violence aside, the film disturbs most through the sound design – Jonny Greenwood’s abrasive and unpredictable score, coupled with disparaging voices in Joe’s head, is nightmarish at the very least.
You Were Never Really Here is a masterpiece, an enthralling dive into the psyche of a disturbed, traumatised man as he navigates the worst humanity has to offer. Phoenix gives an astounding performance, bolstered by an unpredictable script and soundtrack.
CAST: Joaquin Phoenix, Ekaterina Samsonov, Alessandro Nivola, Alex Manette
DIRECTOR: Lynne Ramsay
WRITERS: Lynne Ramsay (screenplay), Jonathan Ames (novel)
SYNOPSIS: A missing teenage girl. A brutal and tormented enforcer on a rescue mission. Corrupt power and vengeance unleash a storm of violence that may lead to his awakening.