You Were Never Really Here review: Joaquin Phoenix storms Lynne Ramsay’s kidnap thriller

A bulked-up Phoenix carries the weight of the world into nightmarish terrain in Ramsay’s hardboiled, sharp-edged, audacious adaptation of Jonathan Ames’s novel.

☞ You Were Never Really Here screens at the BFI London Film Festival on Saturday 14 and Sunday 15 October.

Jonathan Romney
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Joaquin Phoenix as ‘enforcer’ Joe and Ekaterina Samsonov as Nina in You Were Never Really Here (2017)

Joaquin Phoenix as ‘enforcer’ Joe and Ekaterina Samsonov as Nina in You Were Never Really Here (2017)

Whatever else you can say about You Were Never Really Here, it’s not the Lynne Ramsay film you might have been expecting. Exactly what one should expect from her is a moot point – her films to date have been very varied, stylistically and in theme, but they’ve always had a poetic sensibility, a contemplative delicacy beneath the often harsh realist surfaces. You Were Never Really Here is different, an exceptionally violent thriller that chooses to tell its hardboiled, even sordid story in predominantly visual terms, cutting dialogue to the bare minimum, so that it almost feels like a graphic novel for the screen. Given the fact that it was presented at Cannes without credits, and that the final film is expected to be at least a fine-tuned version, I’m hesitant to pronounce definitively on a film that’s sometimes perplexing, that in some ways seems both overstated and unresolved, but that, whichever way you cut it, is intensely cinematic, confrontational and intrepid.

Based on Jonathan Ames’s novel, the New York-set film centres on a lead performance by Joaquin Phoenix, heavily and scraggly bearded as loner Joe, a part for which he’s transformed his body – bulked up, shambling, carrying the weight of the world in every muscle. Its intense, telegraphically-edited opening sequence establishes Joe as a troubled man with a grim personal back story and a grimmer present occupation.

There’s some misdirection at work, however. When Joe comes home to the shabby house he shares with his ancient, infirm mother (Orange is the New Black regular Judith Roberts, fragile and super-emaciated), we think we know what we’re seeing – although the film throws us off the track with some jokily overt references to Psycho.

Joe is a killer, for sure, but of a specific kind: an ‘enforcer’, as the synopsis terms him, who’s entrusted with a mission to free a young girl, Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), from the luxury HQ of a paedophile ring. Joe accomplishes his mission, but that’s when the bloodletting really begins. He now has to save the girl and grapple with his personal agonies, which stem both from childhood and the horrors of war.

Without doubt, You Were Never Really Here is a bold piece of storytelling, with a dream-like feel that evokes its hellish, predominantly nocturnal world very compellingly. Phoenix gives one of his most troubling performances, lending his character derangement and a somewhat Depardieu-like physicality, and Jonny Greenwood’s score, alternating electronics and strings, is integral to the oppressive mood. Shot by Thomas Townend and edited by Joe Bini, the film reaches an apogee of telegraphic precision in the brutal climax.

Still troublesome, however, is what sometimes comes across as a certain glibness in the use of paedophilia as a theme (images of a man’s hand playing with the furniture in a dollhouses), while the elaboration of Joe’s back story doesn’t quite provide the psychological ballast the film seems to reach for. At its present length of 85 minutes, You Were Never Really Here leaves you wanting just a fraction more breathing space. But we’ll see: unlike just about everything else in competition this year, it’s a film that demands to be revisited.

 

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