Lynne Ramsay’s latest, in a selective career of unfailingly high quality, is this adaptation of Jonathan Ames’ 2013 short story of the same name. The film received a UK release courtesy of Studio Canal, and Amazon Studios will do the heavy lifting when it makes its way to the US next month.
You Were Never Really Here stars Joaquin Phoenix, in a turn that won him the Best Actor award at Cannes, as Joe. Joe is a contract killer and, we learn through fragmented flashbacks, a military veteran with traumatic experiences. This is not the high-end, shiny, globetrotting, glamourous hitman lifestyle of Grosse Pointe Blank or Mr and Mrs Smith; this is scuzzy, dirty, lo-fi, room-above-a-shop commercial murder. Joe buys hammers and bashes people’s heads in for money. He lives with his sweet, elderly mother (Judith Roberts) and takes jobs from McCleary (the reliably excellent John Doman, probably best-known for The Wire and The Affair on TV).
Joe takes a job that involves recovering a high-profile politician’s abducted daughter from her kidnappers. No problem for a man of Joe’s skillset, but not everything in this world is as it seems, and he soon finds events spiralling out of control.
The film is a little like Drive for grown-ups; a taciturn, PTSD-suffering bearded vet dishing out violence, rather than an 80s pin-up stuntman. The pounding synths are similar too (Jonny Greenwood proving again he’s one of the best film composers working today) but the film is much less stylised, and although it’s brutal at times, it’s less in love with the violence it portrays. It has plenty of the beautiful, abstract imagery you’d expect from Lynne Ramsay and cinematographer Thomas Townend, and although there are plenty of haunting, dread-building slow moments, it cracks on at quite a pace, wrapping up in 90 minutes.
Phoenix is relentlessly compelling. There’s an alternate universe where he already has a couple of Oscars in the bag for his stunning work in The Master and Her, and this only adds to a fine body of work. Joe has a purposeful, heavy-footed walk, well supported in the sound design, which lends him an air of Terminator-like purpose and indestructibility; but at the same time, he’s intensely vulnerable at times, struggling to cope with events that would traumatise any normal human being.
Fans of Ramsay and Phoenix will find a lot to like here, although compared to absolute masterpieces like We Need to Talk About Kevin, this is one of the director’s more workmanlike efforts, and fairly easy to shake off once the credits roll.
You Were Never Really Here is currently playing in selected UK cinemas.