There are a lot of familiar elements in You Were Never Really Here and if I simply listed them without further explanation then you could be forgiven for thinking that this was just another retread of overheated tropes and cliches. Its a film about a man you pay to get jobs done without needing the police. There's a little girl needing saved, although she may be a lot tougher and smarter than she looks. There's betrayal. And, of course, a job goes horribly wrong. Thankfully, there's a lot more to this film than just those elements. Writer-director Lynne Ramsay, adapating a novella by Jonathan Ames, uses this storyline to explore the psychology of the main character and to show the drip drip drip of the violence and bloodshed eroding his core. But is it his mind going? His heart and soul? His humanity? Or is it possible to repair the damage?
Joaquin Phoenix plays Joe, a man who spends a lot of his time rescuing snatched children, not averse to also killing people in his way with whatever he thinks will do the job best (like a hammer, for example). He also cares for his mother (Judith Roberts). When he's asked to track down the missing daughter of a politician, he goes about things in his usual, effective manner. All seems to go well . . . until it doesn't. As he realises what he's gotten himself into, Joe becomes more and more determined to rescue the young girl (played by Ekaterina Samsonov). That's not going to end well for the criminals, but it might not end well for Joe either.
I enjoyed You Were Never Really Here while it was on. Ramsay intercuts the main narrative with a number of sequences showing fragments of flashbacks and dreams that continue to upset Joe, showing that he's a man who may never find peace. Yet she also delivers in the standard scenes of vengeance/vigilante justice. The violence is depicted in a messy and brutal way, making it all the more effective as viewers can realise what Joe goes through with every life he takes. Physical struggles that take their toll, sharp things puncturing soft tissue, blood and sweat and, yes, a few tears. It's always brief, often only the after-effects are shown, but the film remains steeped in it for much of the runtime.
The choices made by Ramsay are interesting, mainly because of how she still presents viewers with touchstones from these kinds of movies while also using every action and interaction to delve deeper into the mind of Joe, but it helps her cause immensely that she has Phoenix in the main role. He's an actor often able to give great performances and this ranks up there with one of his very best. By turns scary, vulnerable, confident, suicidal, caring, and cold-hearted, there may be other people who turn up onscreen but I can't recall many of them. Roberts and Samsonov are the others who stand out, not because of other characters being underwritten or expendable but because of how strongly they impact on the life of Joe, and therefore affect his mindset for the majority of the movie.
There's something stopping me from rating this as a perfect film just now, which isn't to say that it won't happen when I revisit it some time in the future. Everything works so beautifully, bookended by acts of violence that shock in different ways. You also get a strange and wonderful Jonny Greenwood score as the icing on the cake.
If you're a fan of Ramsay or Phoenix (and why wouldn't you be?) then you owe it to yourself to see this film. I may even come back to this review soon to round up my rating.
Buy the blu here.
Americans will be able to get it here.