You Were Never Really Here

It's been six years since We Need to Talk About Kevin, and Lynne Ramsay's latest feature hits you with the kind of blunt-force trauma induced by one of the protagonist's signature hammer blows to the face. An adaptation of Jonathan Ames' novella of the same name, You Were Never Really Here follows Joe (a hirsute Joaquin Phoenix who was concurrently playing Jesus in Mary Magdalene) a former veteran tormented by his past now working as a contract killer who tracks down missing girls embroiled in pedophile rings and the sex slave industry.
    If you've never read the book and have no idea of the narrative, the trailer suggests the movie is going to take a similar route to the plethora of Taken-esque psychological chase thrillers whereby the stoic lead man spends the entirety of the film amassing a substantial body count and searching laboriously for a missing person, a victim ultimately rescued by our hero's complicated morality. But You Were Never Really Here takes an entirely different turn, assinging very little time to the chase at all. Instead, it dedicates as much detail to the thorny biography which gives credence to Joe's behavioural afflictions and internal agonies as it does the disastrous consequences of Joe's most recent job.
    We meet Joe as wraps up his last job in a sleazy Cincinnati motel, various instruments of his violent business strewn across the room, counting down the seconds as he inhales and exhales from the inside of a plastic bag pulled tautly around his head. He returns to his childhood home where he lives with his mother, a frail women suffering with dementia and to whom Joe bestows the modicum of tenderness he has left. This weathered semi in Queens is both Joe's terra firma between jobs and his personal purgatory, the very site which encases the haunting memories of domestic spousal and parental violence.
    When he is hired by New York Senator Votto to find and bring home his 14-year-old daughter Nina, Joe thinks he's in for a routine assignment and is given carte blanche by the senator to be as brutal as necessary. What he doesn't anticipate is the nightmare which ensues as he encounters a multifaceted system of corruption which strives to maintain the duplicity of Manhattan's network of child exploitation. Phoenix masterfully captures his character's deranged fragility with disconcerting menace, an insidiously pensive yet tragic and pitiful soul.
    It is not an easy watch, but it doesn't lack entertainment either. The attention to detail in Ramsay's direction and the intricacy of her screenplay has woven a striking tale of drama, revenge, trauma and retribution with some genuinely touching moments, especially between Joe and Nina. Soundtracked by Jonny Greenwood's rapturous score, some of the most memorable and symbolic shots are the quickest and most disorienting, such as the blink of an eye cut to one of those seedy ceiling mirrors as Joe is shot in the face while wrestling with a corrupt cop. But the subtle glimpses of Joe's physical scars, physical emblems of his emotional torture, are equally as rich in poignancy.
    Swapping a strained and cliched script for clever and creative camerawork, Ramsay's storytelling is more optical than literal, and You Were Never Really Here boasts minimal but salient dialogue enhanced by glitchy, sharp camera movements paired with some truly stunning frames to demonstrate Joe's unravelling psyche and instability, the abhorrent nature of his work and the vulnerability of the damaged young girls he saves. It wastes no time on flagrantly sentimental extra details, but packs its incredibly succinct narrative into just 85 minutes of pure art.

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