Mere minutes into Lynne Ramsey’s You Were Never Really Here, you are completely aware that this is a violent, difficult film.
This is a film very much concerned with death, trauma and an uneasy mental state. Joe, (Joaquin Phoenix) a troubled gun for hire, traverses the grimy underbelly of New York (à la Taxi Driver) to rescue a missing teenage girl from a ring of underage prostitution. On the way we get a glimpse into his fractured mind, and even less lucid flashbacks to a past riddled with tragedy and loss. New York city itself becomes an outlet for Joe’s constant terror; it is saturated with shadows, claustrophobic with strangers, glimpsed uneasily through windows of stakeout cars.
Opening on the shocking visual of Joe struggling to breathe with a plastic bag shut tight around his face, Ramsey’s camera remains uncomfortably close, unbearably honest from start to finish. The plight of Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov) is captured unflinchingly and often in close up – we see the childishness of her face, her fear, her vulnerability. Corpses litter the film and are shown no more gracefully than Joe’s half-hearted suicide attempts or Nina’s abuse. At times the violence seems gratuitous – always it is hard to watch. But it is clear Ramsay did not intend on making an ‘easy’ film and in that, she has succeeded.
Jonny Greenwood’s score is a pulse of anxiety that thrums throughout the narrative, maintaining a sense of ceaseless tension that permeates each scene. The discordant, base-heavy score stays with you long after the credits finish rolling.
The dream-like (or perhaps more accurately, nightmarish) form of storytelling occasionally works against the film, becoming at certain points slightly incoherent. Particularly unusual is a scene which sees Joe brooding in a sauna amidst his preparations for a hard night on the job – as is his sudden perplexing need to remove his shirt during a mental breakdown. These moments aside, Phoenix does an excellent job at portraying a deeply troubled man like Joe, especially within the parameters of the narrative which did not allow for much beyond a scattering of sparse dialogue.
Ramsay’s film is worth the concession fare if you’re willing to be challenged and even off put by a piece of cinema. Just be ready for a lot of blood, a lot of death and a hearty helping of existential dread.
By Isobel Roach