YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE
Rated TBC/90 minutes
Social Justice Issues: Child-sex trade, child abuse
Director: American Lynne Ramsay
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Alex Manette
Gulf War vet and ex-FBI Agent Joe (Phoenix) is a killer specializing in hits within the child-sex trade. He is hired by Senator Votto (Manette) to extract the latter’s daughter Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov) from a brothel but the rescue goes badly wrong, embroiling Joe in a conspiracy.
Ramsay offers an unflinching stare into a tottering male psyche, marked by a singularity of voice, a stunning control of form and a feel for characters caught in seemingly bottomless anguish.
The central figure, Joaquin Phoenix’s Joe, is a hitman for hire, gentle with his fragile mother (Judith Roberts), partial to acts of self-asphyxiation and super-handy with a mallet. Ramsay sketches his backstory in vibrant almost subliminal vignettes; he was seemingly abused as a child, served in the Gulf War and discovered a truck full of bodies while working for the FBI. Ramsay makes you work to piece it together. Even then it won’t add up.
Joe is hired by a State Senator (Manette) to rescue his daughter Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov) from a high-end Manhattan brothel and then kill everyone on site.
You Were Never Really Here is not obviously violent – Ramsay’s scenes often upsettingly begin just after the blood has been spilled – but are equally visceral and discomforting. On a soundtrack, a voiceover detailing a lifetime of abuse plays out overlaid with a child’s voice counting back from 35. It’s a random and disturbing tactic.
Ramsay’s filmmaking is impeccable and diverse, running from the prosaic to the stunningly poetic. She even takes big chances with shifts in tone.
Joe needs a big actor and Phoenix shoulders his physicality and emotional complexity perfectly, suggesting, without dialogue, inner worlds of trauma without ever over-articulating it. He is ably matched by the often silent but striking Samsonov, a perfect partner in pain for Joe.
It’s thankfully only 90 minutes long because your nervous system couldn’t take much more. Aided by an upfront Jonny Greenwood score, Ramsay has created an impressionistic assault on the senses, anxious, brooding and tightly coiled. It won’t fit all tastes and moods but go with it and it is mightily impressive.
(Edited Extract of Review, Empire Magazine, Sept. 2018. Empire@Bauer-Media.com.au)