Writer/Director Lynne Ramsay’s latest film stars Joaquin Phoenix as Joe, a troubled hitman-for-hire who is tasked with tracking down the teenage daughter of a Senator, rescuing her from a particularly seedy establishment. Continually fighting off some major childhood trauma, Joe finds things going horribly wrong as certain people quickly start showing up murdered and he must get the girl to safety before it’s too late.
You Were Never Really Here is an odd film. The plot is incredibly thin (the entire story could easily be written down in a single paragraph) and it’s a film where you shouldn’t expect any easy answers. Or any, for that matter. Ambiguity is at the top of Ramsay’s agenda here and as such, this film is fully open to interpretation, the audience being required to make their own minds up a lot of the time. The biggest example of this is the frequent flashbacks to several horrific occasions in Joe’s life; we are given glimpses into what once happened to him but it’s all deliberately enigmatic and there is no straightforward explanation given by the end of the feature. There’s also something of a final showdown but it doesn’t go the way that you’d expect and there appear to be several explanations as to what actually happens. I myself thought up about three different theories about how it all went down.
The lack of plot presents a problem within the film because at times, it becomes clear that not a lot is actually happening and many of the early sequences simply consist of Joaquin Phoenix wandering around, asphixiating himself, driving to random places and grappling with those darn inner demons, resulting in a pace that is perhaps far too leisurely for its own good. The fact that not a lot actually happens may put some people off but saying all that, the plot that’s actually there is still decent and occasionally intriguing – calling to mind classic pulp novels or, as many have already mentioned, Taxi Driver.
It’s also strange because you might assume that the film would be incredibly gruesome and violent, seeing as how Joe’s preferred method of assassination is a blow or two to the head with a hammer, but save for an early sequence captured on CCTV (an admittedly clever and very well staged scene), there’s very little violence that’s actually seen and in most cases, we only see the aftermath and not the brutality itself. All of this is certainly a unique direction for the film to go down as it focuses more on character and atmosphere, not over-the-top carnage but at the same time, this could leave the audience disappointed and short-changed – a little brutality would’ve been nice!
The film has a fair amount of supporting performances but clearly, this is Joaquin Phoenix’s show through and through as he’s in practically every scene and delivers a powerful performance, much of it being purely physical, his character not saying an awful lot. Phoenix is an impressively hulking and imposing physical presence as the grizzled and self destructive Joe and he believably shows us that he’s a man on the edge, haunted by the demons of his past but also caring when it comes to his beloved mother and the young girl who he’s determined to save, no matter what. The film’s story is like something out of a Mickey Spillane novel and as such, the character of Joe is seemingly a cross between Mike Hammer (a hammer being Joe’s weapon of choice – coincidence?) and Hartigan from Sin City.
On a technical level, the film performs admirably as it is confidently directed by Lynne Ramsay and the cinematography is admirable, staging the aforementioned CCTV sequence expertly, knowing just what kinds of shots to use and overall, giving the film a dark, moody and dangerous atmosphere. Regarding the music, Jonny Greenwood, fresh from the success of Phantom Thread, gives us another fine score and there are specific old-timey tunes which fit into certain scenes quite brilliantly.
At the end of the day, You Were Never Really Here is a good looking, well acted and well directed film that has some bold, powerful ideas at its heart and some people will appreciate the style, the atmosphere and the ambiguity of it all but due to the relatively short runtime, patient pacing and a disappointing lack of inciting incidents, with a plot you could write down on a post-it note, I felt a little short changed and with an unshakable urge to ask “Is that it?”