With this impressionistic and often daringly enigmatic thriller taken from a short novel by Jonathan Ames, British fimmaker Lynne Ramsay (‘Ratcatcher’, ‘Morvern Callar’) is back on top form with a vengeance – quite literally, though that emotion is not hers but part of the story. ‘You Were Never Really Here’ centres on burly, big-bearded, taciturn hitman Joe (Joaquin Phoenix in determinedly unglamorous mode), whom we encounter in the opening scene already carrying out a contract – though we never find out who’s the victim or what it’s all about.
In fact, Ramsay’s film gives mere visual and aural hints as to Joe’s backstory, motives and character. The briefest of flashbacks suggest he’s been in the military and the police, and that as a child he suffered a brutal father. But apart from seeing him carry out his work – his preferred weapon a hammer – all we know about Joe is that he lives with and cares for his elderly mother. Still, we do witness his dealings with a contractor, who lines up a job for him: to discover the whereabouts of and return to her politician father an underage girl abducted into sex slavery.
All this may bring to mind ‘Taxi Driver’, but Ramsay’s film is very different. Not wanting to distract us with the precise details of the storyline, or those of the world Joe inhabits, she focuses instead on his inner life. She uses Phoenix’s subtly expressive face and body language, a complex soundtrack, an elastic editing style and Thomas Townend’s wonderful cinematography to evoke his fragile, sometimes surprisingly tender, sometimes ruthless state of mind. The story occasionally takes its time over small moments – Joe singing along affectionately with his mother – but elsewhere it suddenly proceeds in rapid fits and starts, rushing through a series of deaths with barely a pause for breath. If one is left a little in the dark as to what’s happened and why, no matter, as the execution is so assured that one simply goes with the flow of striking, suggestive images. (Jonny Greenwood’s score also helps in maintaining the momentum.)
Wisely, Ramsay doesn’t linger or focus on the violence, but implies it through expert editing and composition. Accordingly, what might have been an almost unbearably grim trip into a sordid underworld of corruption, cruel exploitation and brutality does, against all the odds, have a solid underpinning of compassion. ‘You Were Never Really Here’ comes some years after Ramsay’s uneven ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’ and her aborted involvement with ‘Jane Got a Gun’ – making it a reminder of a very distinctive directorial talent as well as a hugely audacious, imaginative and strangely compelling movie.