You couldn’t call Lynne Ramsay a prolific director. It’s been six years since the release of her last feature film, We Need to Talk About Kevin, but You Were Never Really Here shows she’s hardly been idle.
This sophisticated, stripped-back thriller reveals she’s been busy developing her already impressive narrative skills, creating a complex portrait of a killer that leaves mainstream expectations of the genre far behind.
Phoenix is riveting as Joe, the psychologically damaged protagonist, a grizzled and taciturn Gulf War veteran, now making a living as a contract killer specialising in the rescue of victims of sex slavery. He lives with his elderly, dependent mother (Judith Roberts) in their dilapidated house in New York, and any tenderness left within him is saved for her.
As revealed by a clever mix of soundtrack and lightning-quick flashbacks, the mother and son share a disturbing history of spousal and parental abuse.
Given the film opens with Joe in the midst of one of his apparently regular suicide attempts, it’s clear his life is already unravelling. But things start to go more seriously awry when he is allocated his next mission, which requires him to rescue Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), the pre-teen daughter of a New York senator (Alex Manette).
Nina has been kidnapped by paedophiles and her father employs Joe to not merely find her and bring her home, but to do so in the most brutal way possible, killing everyone involved in her abduction.
Joe rescues Nina, only to have her retaken, but despite the subsequent complex twists of plot, Ramsay keeps the film’s focus firmly on the raddled headspace of a hitman tortured by PTSD and the psychological ramifications of his abused childhood.
It’s a compelling and nuanced portrait, and Phoenix’s portrayal of the quiet yet fundamentally damaged hitman is mesmerising.
Yet I found myself equally impressed with the deft and clean minimalism of Ramsay’s visual storytelling. Even the violence is sophisticated, managing to convey the magnitude of the brutality without revelling in bloody detail. This is most brilliantly demonstrated in the brothel scene where Joe’s murderous invasion is depicted from the distant, multiple-cut perspective of a series of security cameras to the music of “Angel Baby”.
While Thomas Townsend’s cinematography and Joe Bini’s editing are exquisite, the use of sound and music in this film deserves special mention. Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood has created a brilliant yet disconcerting score that manages to perfectly evoke Joe’s damaged psyche. The soundtrack is densely layered with chilling intrusions of voiceover and the sonic motif of Nina’s zoned-out counting, which all act to fill in and enhance backstory and character.
You Were Never Really Here is an accomplished and sophisticated study in the consequences of damage and abuse from a director who has managed to create an art-house version of the psychological thriller. It’s a gripping piece of cinema and highly recommended for those who desire more from a thriller than car chases and automatic weaponry.
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