Scottish filmmaker Lynne Ramsay returns with this concise, poetic and violent drama in which Joaquin Phoenix plays a troubled hit man
With this impressionistic and often daringly enigmatic thriller taken from a short novel by Jonathan Ames, Scottish filmmaker Lynne Ramsay (Ratcatcher, Morvern Callar) is back with a vengeance. You Were Never Really Here centres on the burly, big-bearded, taciturn hit man 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 the victim is or what it’s all about.
Ramsay gives us few visual and aural hints as to Joe’s backstory, motives or character. The briefest of flashbacks suggests he’s been in the military and that, as a child, he survived a brutal father. But apart from seeing him carry out his work – his preferred weapon is a ball-peen 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 has an urgent job for him: to save an underage girl abducted into sex slavery and return her to her politician father.
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, the director focuses on Joe’s inner life. She uses Phoenix’s subtly expressive face and body language, a complex sound mix, an elastic editing style and Tom Townend’s wonderful cinematography to evoke his fragile, sometimes surprisingly tender, sometimes ruthless state of mind. The story occasionally lingers over small moments – like Joe singing along affectionately with his mother – but elsewhere it proceeds in rapid fits and starts, rushing through a series of deaths with barely a pause for breath. If you’re left a little in the fog as to what’s happened and why, it’s not a drawback: the execution is so assured, you simply go with the flow of striking, suggestive images. (Jonny Greenwood’s sinuous score also helps to maintain momentum.)
Wisely, Ramsay doesn’t focus on the violence but implies it through expert composition. Accordingly, what might have been an almost unbearably grim trip into a sordid underworld of corruption and exploitation does have, against all odds, a solid underpinning of compassion. Coming after her uneven We Need to Talk About Kevin, Ramsay’s latest – a complete return to form – reminds us of a hugely audacious and imaginative talent, one that only needs to find the right material to glitter, darkly.
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