When it comes to the technical skills and certain artistries of filmmaking, it’s a good rule of thumb that if you don't notice it, then its executioner has essentially done a good job. So if there’s nothing jarring or out of place in the editing or sound, for example, then that artist has done their job well and will be hired again. The same can be said about directing. But the film I’m about to talk about breaks the mould. Writer/director Lynne Ramsay (‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’) has made a film so sharp, so calculated, that you can see her workings like a maths equation - but it’s not until the whole picture has been revealed that you understand why. For all of ‘You Were Never Really Here’s’ tight 89 minutes the shots are long, the sets are dark, the dialogue is sparse, and the action is brutal. You have no idea what’s going on, and yet you know everything at the same time. You’re both shocked by its action, yet knew exactly what was coming - and by the end, you’re in awe about how a film can say so much with so little.
Joaquin Phoenix ('Her', ‘Walk the Line’) is Joe. He has PTSD on top of PTSD on top of PTSD. He spends his days taking care of his elderly mother (Judith Roberts, TV’s ‘Orange is the New Black’) and his nights as a “hired gun” for those willing to pay. The only thing crossing over into both worlds is his inability to block out the trauma of the things he’s seen and done in his life, and his constant half-baked suicides attempts to forget them permanently. When tasked with recovering a politician’s young daughter (Ekaterina Samsonov, ‘Wonderstruck’) from a house of unspeakable evil, he ends up pissing off the wrong people and they make it personal. Let’s just say that whatever happens next, they brought it on themselves, and no one will weep for their outcome.
The shots are long, the sets are dark, the dialogue is sparse, and the action is brutal.
So, we have our story, our plot and our protagonist, and to put it all together is Ramsay’s exquisite direction. She has compartmentalised every single facet of this film and Joe’s personality. For a film that contains so much violence, she has created a distinction between violence with a purpose, vengeful violence, self-inflicted violence, and cathartic violence. She has created a distinction between day Joe and night Joe. She has created a distinction between what Joe hears then, now and later. This is a puzzle with a thousand pieces, pieced together with precision, grace and an unparalleled eye by Lynne Ramsay. I also don’t think I’ve ever given kudos to a sound designer before, but all hail Paul Davies and his team for their extraordinary work. As for the small cast, Joaquin is quiet, soulful and damaged, a character he has perfected over time. He has embodied Joe from his excessive physical damage to his mental scaring and his uncompromising heart.
‘You Were Never Really Here’ is a slow burn with a lot of brutal elements with smatterings of ‘Leon: The Professional’ - only that film now seems like a Disney flick compared to this.