16 – 29 March, DCA
Those aware of Lynne Ramsay’s previous work will know the kind of anticipation a new film of hers can bring. A mixture of joy from the artistic quality of her track record and dread of the resulting mental state. 2018’s You Were Never Really Here is no different, proving a compelling character study worthy of the reputation Ramsay and her crew of collaborators have gained.
The plot follows a hired gun, Joe (played by Joaquin Phoenix), embarking on a job to locate a missing child within the New York underbelly. Unsurprisingly, things go awry along the way. This can at first seem derivative of every b-rate noir released over the last ten years, usually starring the likes of Mel Gibson or Liam Neeson. However, in Ramsay’s hands the plot takes a back seat and the focus is placed on Joe’s psychological workings, allowing for a far more interesting and personal take. Although the plot turns of the first two thirds aren’t particularly spectacular, they allow Joe to react in his own unique way, giving the film originality through its characters.
The usual New York noir set checklist is ticked off, with dimly lit alleyways and characters cruising the streets in the early hours whilst staring out a car window. Naturally, Joe brings to mind Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle, with both characters constantly on the edge of violence and trying to save a young girl from corruption. In reality, the only character traits they share are surface level; Travis’ angst is a projection onto the city to clean the filth, whereas Joe’s violence spawns from the trauma of his youth and focuses much more inwardly, often becoming self-abusive. The violence within the film is also a vehicle for Joe’s psyche, with the camera often pointed at Joe’s face instead of the action, which proves far more disturbing by allowing the consequences to show.
The portrayal of Joe by Joaquin Phoenix is nuanced and multi-textured. Externally he is a hulking figure covered in scars, blood and filth, making even the eating of jelly beans intimidating. With a hunched over posture of a beaten animal brought through from Joe’s childhood, Phoenix keeps the character grounded and avoids the cliché of the unstoppable action hero. A vulnerability in Phoenix’s eyes brings humanity and femininity throughout the most violent moments, allowing empathy and sympathy from the audience.
The haunted nature of Joe’s character is echoed in the score composed by Jonny Greenwood, with minimal strings in the more personal of moments but industrial and muscular in the action sequences. Never a linear chord progression or pleasant melody, the film’s eerie, obscure sounds contribute to its foreboding tone. As the story is often one of Joe’s isolation, the score does a lot of the heavy lifting for his unspoken emotions, with the two becoming inseparable.
The film isn’t entirely serious and, as in Ramsay’s 2011 film We Need To Talk About Kevin, the soundtrack of contemporary music turns harrowing scenes into painfully humorous set pieces. Often stemming from Joe enjoying these songs in the deranged way only he could, a juxtaposition between song and screen goes beyond the absurd.
You Were Never Really Here fits perfectly in the peculiar cannon of Lynne Ramsay; accomplished as a haunting psychological portrait but never losing the furious pace and stimulating action required of a genre movie. Making Ramsay worthy of the same kind of consideration reserved for the top tier filmmakers of this ilk, such as Scorsese or Melville, it is an essential watch for both fans of genre movies and art cinema.