Imagine if a film like Taken had substance. If it wasn’t just about bloody revenge and action set pieces. Imagine if a revenge thriller was less about the revenging and the thrilling as it was about the emotional impact these events had on people. This is what You Were Never Really Here aims for. It’s not always pretty, it’s not going to be to everyone’s liking but it is a fascinating and original take on a tried and tested genre.
The avenger in question is Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) who is a gun, or in this case hammer, for hire who tracks down missing girls. Living with and caring for his mother, Joe is on the brink of suicide. But it is here that writer director Lynne Ramsay takes an interesting turn. We frequently see Joe preparing or even beginning to kill himself. But he doesn’t. It’s not that he fails it’s that Joe is a natural born survivor.
Existing in a nihilistic, neon drenched and ‘80s synth pounding soundtracked world, there are parallels to Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive. But there is nothing sexy or cool here. Joe is a schlubby, bearded, almost homeless looking hero. No cool white bomber jackets here. Instead Ramsay takes us on a journey into Joe’s psyche, damaged, fragile but resolute at its core. In glimpsed montages we see what Joe has been through, war, the horrors of human trafficking, childhood abuse, violence towards his mother. It paints a tapestry of who Joe is without ever feeling the need to divulge or explain it. As such, it’s powerful, punchy and scarring.
Unlike Winding Refn, Ramsay isn’t interested in the act of violence. You Were Never Really Here is undoubtedly a violent film, but Ramsay is more interested in the aftermath of the violence. Acts of aggression are seen from afar, or through CCTV camera. Instead violence is a catalyst, a tsunami impacting the shores of the characters involved. Like her last film We Need To Talk About Kevin, Ramsay wants to highlight the devastation violence causes. At one point Hitchcock’s Psycho is referenced, a film in which you famously never see the knife puncture Janet Leigh on camera, but your mind in convinced otherwise. Ramsay’s direction is content to let out mind fill in the blanks and, like a well written book, it’s more powerful than anything on screen.
In the lead role Phoenix is typically terrific. He imbues Joe with a bear like quality, an apex predator shuffling through the forest, angry, down on his luck but always capable of rising up, ferocious and unstoppable. It’s in the more delicate moments, in particular with his mother, where Phoenix allows just a hint of a smile to creep into Joe’s world.
A delicate and hard hitting essay on trauma, You Were Never Really Here is a tight, minimal film that speaks volumes by whispering quietly.