Lynne Ramsay doesn’t do straightforward when it comes to adapting books to film. It’s why we will never see her take on ‘The Lovely Bones’, latterly hashed from Alice Sebold by Peter Jackson, and explains how You Were Never Really Here can so lyrically draw from the eponymous novella of Jonathan Ames without recourse to exposition or, often, dialogue. The result is sensory cinema that is as concerned with imparting to audiences an experience as it is telling a story.
There is, of course, a story and it is, indeed, a cracker; an unpredictable and exhilarating thriller, delivered at pace perfection. Joaquin Phoenix gives his burly all as hitman for hire Joe, whose speciality is in rescuing girls from trafficking networks. Scars litter his body, but are eerily never discussed, whilst the there is an almost messianic quality to his ill-kept hair. Joe has a reputation for brutality – ‘I can be’ – but this is at odds with character nuances that hint at a man driven by a strong moral coda, the desire to look after his ageing mother (Judith Roberts) and the memory of past traumas. Ramsay, with the aid of Herzog’s long-time editing compadre Joe Bini, intercuts fleeting snatches of her lead’s past into his present, with each jolt catching her audience unaware and never revealing more than necessary to inspire curiosity. This is economical filmmaking and a whip smart exercise in thought provocation.
After a measured, and yet never slow, opening act, Joe is instructed to rescue Nina Votto (ethereal rising star Ekaterina Samsonov), the abducted daughter of a New York senator. With John Wick efficiency – albeit captured with arthouse subtly and fabulous flair – Joe powers through his foes but finds a vicious bite awaiting him on the other side. As his mission erupts through the barriers he has painstakingly established between his work and home lives, the fragility of his being is revealed. In one sequence, this is visually captured in the employment of a shattered mirror to frame the action, whilst Phoenix wears the weight in his eyes throughout. As knotty, sinuous and deviant thrillers go, this one’s surprisingly tender and often heart wrenching.
Certainly, among the film’s highlights is the scene in which a devastating Roberts joins with Phoenix in a rendition of ‘A, You’re Adorable, a tune that later returns. As was the case with Ramsay’s last film – We Need to Talk About Kevin – we need to talk about her score, which is once again provided by Jonny Greenwood. At times elegiac, at others terrifying, Greenwood’s music strikes notes as important to our understanding of Joe’s psyche in the film as Phoenix’s performance itself. His staccato strings and shimmering, almost ritualistic, beats hint at the horror that lurks beneath the more human surface drama, whilst definitively cementing Greenwood’s place in the pantheon of great composers working today. The aural quality of Ramsay’s film is every bit as tangible and significant as her visual flourishes, implanting viewers within an absorbing and thoroughly sensorial experience.
In many respects, the relatively brief runtime and fatless structure of Ramsay’s script do much to establish You Were Never Really Here as a fundamentally truncated production. To meet the demands of Phoenix’s schedule, the entire production was squeezed into a two month shoot and it is a testament to Ramsay’s vibrant creative ability that this energy never feels rushed. Indeed, it is an asset. Dialogue is limited and special effects are largely replaced by an emphasis on aftermath – one bullet to the head is captured not by impact but in its external splatter. Far from being gratuitous, the film’s violence feels real and benefits from an eye for consequence over pleasure in the act. This is no easy watch and, even in quieter moments, has the capacity to knock audiences asunder. Marvellous, and already available on streaming. Please do.