Original Name: You Were Never Really Here
Director: Lynne Ramsay
Runtime: 90 minutes
IMDB Link: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt5742374/
Lynne Ramsay: Born in 1969, she studied photography at Napier College, Edinburgh, then entered the National Film and Television School, where she specialised in cinematography and direction. Her films are marked by a fascination with children and young people and the recurring, unresolvable themes of grief, guilt and, above all, death and its aftermath. They are low on dialogue and explicit story exposition; instead, they look to bold, unusual images, vivid details, an astute use of music and highly wrought sound design to create their unsettling worlds.
“The challenge of this was like, how can we show this, tell it, and be able to do it in the space of time? ‘Cause it felt overwhelming at first. It was always a short script, but I had to cut 20 pages when I got here just to make it within the timeframe, as well as all this crazy prep and seeing a hundred and odd locations. Joaquin was there really early as well, so I don’t think I slept, which maybe is why it’s such a trip.”
Haunting, bold and fragmented, You Were Never Really Here marks another towering achievement from Lynne Ramsay, a hit-you-in-the-gut noir-inspired film that more concern of displaying Joe’s mess-up headspace than the events of the story. At heart, this film is a character study of Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) as he struggles to fight the demon within himself, a suicidal urge that always occur in his mind. At that, the plot plays fairly straight-forward with few interesting twists and turns. It’s a bold decision then, that Ramsay never really informs us with backstory or overt details. The flashbacks are fragmented, just like Joe’s withdrawal state of mind. Like how we never know the full picture of Joe’s previous traumatic experience when he was a cop, but the images that were showed speak full volume. What Ramsay and Phoenix eventually raises the bar then, is how they avoid the usual tropes of the genre, making Joe’s decisions unpredictable and commanding. Said in the interview that Ramsay recorded a distance firework and showed it to Phoenix as what’s going on in his head. We follow every frame with Joe, although he could rarely guess what he’s going to do next (the man might not know himself).
You could say the film goes at length to portray Joe’s perspective at a cost of other characters (especially the girl Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), the 13-year-old girl who is in the paedophile ring that Joe needs to rescue), but what a perspective this guy has. Amor himself with thick-built body and scar, he feels detached from this current world. As the title might suggest his state of mind, he moves around his surrounding like a sleepy bear waiting for the coming winter. He cares for his Mom, apparently the only person who still has some attachment towards. But when you see him locking his Mom inside the house, you know that this relationship, too, has taken some form of twisted, sad bonding. In the duration of the film, Joe is like a bomb waiting to explode. The moments you see any kind of relationship he has with other people, are usually from the verge of life and death. There’s a scene (with I found the hand holding to be a bit cheesy – the only time Ramsay lets the sentiment slips out too obviously) where the guy he shot and him both humming over the radio song. The weird bond between him and Nina, both broken in their own ways, have an unexpected connection as they seem to rely on each other to move on with life.
Phoenix could never be better than this role. Here the man who commits 110% to the character he inhibits. “At one scene where he (Phoenix) walks into the camera, I saw the devil himself”, says Ramsay. This film is just a showcase of talents at their top of the games, be it Ramsay and her confidence vision, Phoenix and his committed performance, Jonny Greenwood and his haunting score, Thomas Townend and his unflinching camerawork… each component has a quality of its own. Also, the editing, especially the sound editing that makes the film flow seemingly and never loses its strength. The eerie sound keeps the tension throughout, imagine a scorpion that stings you and never leaves. The actually editing, especially the camera footage scene that cut abruptly between the footage and Joe’s approaching with the distorted Baby Angel in the background reminds strongly to David Lynch’s uncanny sense, for good reasons. Ramsay’s interested in the void in-between each action, on the power of what we can’t see instead of what appeared on screen, on the power of inner scream than the dialogues the characters say. All these make the film, an otherwise B-quality thin plot, a cinematic treat with one of the most vibrant character in years that gets under your skin and refuses to leave there.