It’s been over six years since the release of writer/director Lynne Ramsay’s last feature film, We Need to Talk about Kevin. With its impeccable sound design and minimal dialogue, it was almost impossible not to be enamoured of it. Her latest work, starring Joaquin Phoenix is no different. Adopting her usual modus operandi, Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here is a violent, disturbing film based on an equally disturbing book (written by Jonathan Ames) of the same name.
Played by Phoenix, the film’s protagonist Joe is a troubled war veteran haunted by painful memories of his abusive childhood and the atrocities he witnessed during the war. We’re first introduced to him in Cincinnati in a cheap hotel room where he packs away duct tape and cable ties, burns a photograph of a young girl and then escapes through the hotel’s fire exit door. Thankfully his suspicious actions are for good reason; he makes his living rescuing abducted girls from sex-traffickers, risking his life each time he does so. He’s just your average guy really, or Joe if you will. After leaving Cincinnati he is hired to rescue the missing daughter of a high-profile New York politician who suspects she is being held captive in the city as a sex slave. Unbeknownst to Joe, by accepting the job he unwittingly becomes entangled in a deadly game of politics, betrayal, but most importantly, survival.
Make no mistake; the film isn’t a fast-paced, action-packed saga. It’s the complete opposite in fact. Like taking a late-night drive down a dark country road, You Were Never Really Here is a slow and quiet affair that’s as exhilarating to experience as it is uncomfortable. In spite of its slow tempo, the dramatic showdowns and shocking twists that occur have no less impact, they arguably have more.
The little we learn about Joe’s past comes in the form of quick flashbacks. They last no more than a few seconds and are never expanded on, but it’s not hard to fill in the blanks and understand why he’s such a troubled man. Ramsay does what most should: she treats her audience like intellectuals. She drip-feeds us snippets of information rather than spoon-feeding it, in turn forcing us to roll up our sleeves and decipher the film’s content without aid. Ramsay has the type of skill that can only be fully appreciated when a film’s pace is as slow as this one. She handles the camera with meticulous care, ensuring it too speaks its own mute language. Each camera shot and movement is full of purpose and gives us an insight into Joe’s fragile state of mind.
As he goes from room to room of a high-end brothel, beating the bejesus of its occupants with a hammer, a vinyl recording of the 60’s tune Angel Baby plays softy in the background. It doesn’t take an intellectual to understand why this is pure genius, just someone with a good sense of humour. The rest of the ironic soundtrack consists of 50’s doo-wop, 70’s pop and tension-building drums, with my favourite being If I Knew You Were Comin’ I’d’ve Baked a Cake. It’s utter genius. The phenomenal sound design- courtesy of Ramsay’s long time collaborator Paul Davies- is among the best I’ve heard this year. Every loud crunch of gravel, every heavy footstep adds so much meaning to each scene.
Phoenix as always is brilliant. He flourishes on screen, never letting the film’s lack of dialogue affect his performance. His eyes convey an emptiness that doesn’t need to be expressed with words. The stillness and sense of calm that he brings to his character is what makes him so frightful. When provoked he becomes the antonym of tranquillity, before quickly reverting back to his calm and reserved manner. He’s reminiscent of Ryan Gosling character in Drive, without the shiny scorpion jacket of course. Shame really.