Given that Lynne Ramsay is the filmmaker behind the astonishingly grim We Need To Talk About Kevin, she knows a thing or two about isolated, violent men. After six years, her follow-up delves into the psyche of another troubled male. This time, however, there are even fewer easy answers than there were for Kevin’s behaviour.
The stark, uncompromising, gut-punch that is You Were Never Really Here, which is based on the novel of the same name by Jonathan Ames, stars Joaquin Phoenix in one of those roles he can both play in his sleep and make so emotionally raw that it’s almost as though his nerves are literally exposed onscreen.
He’s Joe, a greasy-haired, listless contract killer with undisclosed personal traumas in his past. Joe’s only real companion is his ailing mother, with whom he still lives in a rundown house teeming with unspoken words and sad family memories. Although Joe interacts with other low-level types, he’s careful about not getting too close. He even cuts ties with a sort-of acquaintance when the man unintentionally confirms that Joe might have been spotted by somebody else.
It’s unclear what Joe’s real purpose in life may be. Ramsay and Phoenix eloquently communicate the trappings of depression, and how it grips the sufferer. Teetering back and forth, Joe attempts suicide several times, most memorably during the film’s goriest sequence.
The argument could be made that Joe is working on some kind of moral basis, given that his primary occupation involves rescuing young women from sex trafficking rings. But even this doesn’t really seem to affect him too much. Joe gets in, gets the job done, collects his fee and disappears into the night. Even when confronted with unspeakable horrors, he remains laser focused.
Or, to be more specific, Joe remains stoic, floating through life affectless and unaffected. It’s a wonder he doesn’t sink like a stone with the weight of everything he’s carrying around on his shoulders.
The title of Ramsay’s film, as well as the source material, suggests that the protagonist is a ghost rather than a fully-formed person. If other characters didn’t demand a response from him at various moments, one could reasonably assume Joe was a literal spirit, like Casey Affleck’s sad ghost in A Ghost Story sans the grungy sheet.
But moments such as when he’s tasked with taking a photo for excited tourists, or when he sifts through jellybeans looking for the all-important green ones, confirm Joe is there, he just isn’t necessarily present.
In the hands of a less confident filmmaker, or indeed a lead actor, You Were Never Really Here could have been a softer, more life-affirming experience. Instead, Ramsay holds the audience’s heads under the water with Phoenix, allowing fitful gasps for air only when they’ve been truly earned.
The film is an endurance test at times, but it’s breathtakingly shot, capturing the beauty in the grim. It also shows moments of sweetness, such as hands clasped tightly together as one hired gun drifts towards death and another offers comfort or the squishing of wet shoes after a clothes-clad swim.
You Were Never Really Here would actually make a fine double bill with the Safdie brothers inspired, Robert Pattinson-led Good Time. It, too, is a dark, NYC-set story about lowlife criminals just trying to make it through the day (and night), their meaningless lives hurtling (or, in Joe’s case, ambling) towards some kind of contentment, if such a thing even exists.
Its deathwave score chugs alongside the protagonist as though it’s coming from inside his body, affected by environment as much as desperation. Here, Jonny Greenwood’s heartbeat-mirroring creation similarly taps along with Joe, kicking into high gear when need be but never feeling like an addition. It burrows under the skin, ever-present but unobtrusive, like the scars on his back.
Neither film passes judgement on its protagonist, but the Safdies end theirs with the smallest glimmer of hope in their blackened hearts. Ramsay, meanwhile, isn’t so sure.
Joey Keogh (@JoeyLDG) is a writer from Dublin, Ireland with an unhealthy appetite for horror movies and Judge Judy. In stark contrast with every other Irish person ever, she’s straight edge. Hello to Jason Isaacs.