A traumatised mercenary struggles when his latest assignment goes violently wrong in You Were Never Really Here, a superb and deeply effective thriller from writer/director Lynne Ramsay. Anyone who has seen her earlier features like Ratcatcher and We Need to Talk About Kevin will appreciate Ramsay’s near-unparalleled talent for bleak and uncomfortable cinema. You Were Never Really Here builds powerfully on that reputation with a story that is as beautiful as it is brutal, and as oblique as it is confrontational.
Joaquin Phoenix plays Joe, a war veteran who tries to exorcise his own personal traumas by rescuing abused children from theirs. He works with a handler who arranges his missions, and frees the children – who are generally being sexually exploited – with a powerful level of blunt, bloody violence. Joe lives a miserable life, constantly on the verge of suicide, and only seems to persist by caring for his elderly mother (Judith Roberts). On his latest assignment events take an unpredictable turn, leading to bloody violence and deadly consequences.
This film is cinema stripped back beyond the bone. Any unnecessary elements have been pared away, and to such a degree that it is remarkable just how much storytelling doesn’t need to remain effective. We know that Joe is a veteran, but not what he did. We know he was abused by his father as a child, but we do not learn the details. We do not know how or why he entered his current vocation, and we never really learn the details of his new assignment beyond the basics. It is an action film, but that action is pared back to its shortest, most lethal version. What matters here is not story – although there definitely still is one – but feeling. The violence is not celebrated but interrogated: it mourns rather than revels, and it reminds the viewer that violence hurts.
It is also unexpectedly beautiful to watch. Cinematographer Thomas Townend extracts a strange serenity out of Joe’s more peaceful moments, and builds a tremendous sense of atmosphere. It is paired not only with Johnny Greenwood’s arresting score but also a range of oddly chosen and idiosyncratic pop songs.
Joaquin Phoenix is an acting marvel here, like a walking bruise of sadness, pain, and regret. He expresses so much of his character arc in non-verbal and visual terms. It is genuinely bizarre that he was overlooked for an Oscar nomination for this, yet two years later actually won the award for his garish and overbearing performance in Joker. Perhaps it was one of those odd, seemingly apologetic wins we see from time to time: like Judi Dench winning for Shakespeare in Love after being passed over for Mrs Brown, or Russell Crowe winning for Gladiator after his vastly superior performance in The Insider.
You Were Never Really Here is as strong a film as it is distinctive. It continues to emphasise Lynne Ramsay’s position as one of cinema’s most powerful and talented creative voices. It is honestly impossible for me to fault.