You Were Never Really Here
by George Wolf
Two killers lie on a kitchen floor, gently singing along as the radio plays “I’ve Never Been to Me,” surely on of the cheesiest songs of all time. Only one of the men will get up.
It’s a fascinating sequence, one of many in Lynne Ramsay’s bloody and beautiful You Were Never Really Here.
In 2011, Ramsay turned We Need to Talk About Kevin, a spare novel that was not especially big screen friendly, into one of the most devastating yet necessary films in recent memory. Her gifts keep on giving, as here she adapts Jonathan Ames’s brisk novella into a dreamy, hypnotic fable, an in-the-moment pileup of Taxi Driver, Taken and Drive.
Joaquin Phoenix delivers an intensely powerful performance as Joe, a combat veteran who has been wounded in various ways. Joe lives with his mother in suburban New York, whetting his appetite for violence as a vigilante for hire who specializes in rescuing kidnapped girls and exacting brutal justice.
A New York senator (Alex Manette) wants his daughter’s (Ekaterina Samsonov) disappearance kept quiet, so Joe gets the call, only to find this case comes with unexpected complications.
Together, Ramsay and Phoenix ensure nearly each of the film’s 89 minutes burns with a spellbinding magnetism. While Phoenix lets you inside Joe’s battered psyche just enough to want more, Ramsay’s visual storytelling is dazzling. Buoyed by purposeful editing and stylish soundtrack choices, Ramsay’s wonderfully artful camerawork (kudos to cinematographer Thomas Townend) presents a stream of contrasts: power and weakness, brutality and compassion, celebration and degradation.
Much like Ramsay’s Kevin, YWNRH is no feel good garden party. It is darkly surreal, and ironically exacting in its impressionistic study of taking hits, and hitting back. Still, it offers a rich cinematic experience, with a filmmaker and actor working in glorious tandem to soak each frame with meaning.