Phoenix soars in sensory blitz – You Were Never Really Here (Film Review)

A frenzied bombardment of the senses, You Were Never Really Here is an agitated, stripped-back 90 minutes of visceral cinema. Spearheaded by a Joaquin Phoenix masterclass, the film is really guided more by its eclectic score and bruising sound design. Most impressively, though, it’s a film that knows exactly what it is – and cements writer-director Lynne Ramsay’s position as one of the medium’s leading provocateurs.

The relatively lean plot follows Joe, a hitman of sorts, who plies his brutal trade in the criminal underworld – and whose assignments seem to chiefly concern the kidnappings of young girls. Rescuing them from an unsavoury world of sex trafficking, the film clearly takes a generous degree of inspiration from Taxi Driver. Like Travis Bickle, Joe is a heavily scarred veteran – still haunted by the fatal raids from his days as an FBI agent, and by his patrols in the Middle East. The title visuals are even mouthed quite literally by a cab driver, so you can’t say Ramsay shies away from these influences. There are clear shades of Taken, too, whilst the thumping electronic score and backdrop of the metropolitan nightscape conjures a strong Drive aesthetic.

Ramsay’s oeuvre has become somewhat synonymous with a prominent sound design, and her latest work is no exception. The razor-sharp tones of We Need to Talk About Kevin can be similarly found here – heightening every floorboard creak and car beep to a fashion a deeply disturbing impression of reality. Indeed, the sound design often acts in place of dialogue – with Ramsay able to sketch her narrative through a predominantly sensory means. What is heard off-screen is favoured over the sources we see on-screen, and this works tremendously in expressing Joe’s own disorientation.

With his score, Jonny Greenwood has superbly assimilated the cacophony of competing noises from the filmic world into his electronic soundscape. The groaning strings of There Will Be Blood return, yet Greenwood here demonstrates an astounding range – incorporating his established knack for classical compositions into an experimental work that is much more comparable to his Radiohead achievements. Synths and trappy hi-hats are fused with a barrage of industrial clangs, whilst Greenwood manages to blend some Western-inspired guitar strumming early on into a catchy, spluttering electronic beat.

Joaquin Phoenix’s turn as the battle-weary Joe is a tour de force that may well be his finest yet. The villainous masterclass of Gladiator may forever define him, as will the endearing (and exceptionally moustached) Theodore in Her. His potent study of PTSD with The Master‘s Freddie Quell, meanwhile, has clearly informed his characterisation of Joe.

Yet Joe is a different creature for Phoenix. Joe is a hardened beast – an explosive brute who would snap another man’s neck without a second thought. Igniting the photographs of now-rescued children, Joe douses the flame using a nearby bible. His bulking torso is disfigured with extensive scars, emblematic of not only his violent exertions but a severe emotional torment, rooted deep below the burly surface. You feel involved in the battle he is fighting against his inner demons to an alarming degree – an impressive feat that could have easily been lost in all the ferocity.

In spite of its inherently violent premise, Ramsay hardly lingers on these moments of brutality. Instead, we often find Joe in the wake of his savage deeds – walking by a corpse, for instance, or leaving a room clutching a bloodied hammer. It’s a masterclass in visual storytelling, with Ramsay spurning expositional dialogue in lieu of some clever screen direction. This staunch refusal to conform has defined Ramsay’s previous films, and it’s what makes this particular thriller stand out from what is an increasingly jaded genre.

This is a film about violence, no question, but that does not make it a violent film. Ramsay and her DOP, Thomas Townend, rarely force us up close and personal with the savagery – and instead we are frequently detached from the action (if not excluded completely). We witness a struggle of life-and-death not through a vigorous series of close-ups, but in the reflection of a cracked ceiling mirror. Off-screen space is as crucial visually as it is audibly with the heightened sound design.

Relentless, intense, for sure – but the images still manage to retain an astonishing beauty. A beauty that seemingly warrants no place in a story like this, yet manages simultaneously to lie in complete harmony with it. Perhaps it’s the performances – Judith Roberts’ senile mother who has long given Joe a reason to persevere; or Ekaterina Samsonov’s abducted teenager Nina, who kindles a future incentive for Joe’s humanity. Perhaps it’s the editing of Joe Bini, who imbues the film with a darkly comic tone – and a moral crux in doing so. In truth, it’s all of these things and more – such is the decisiveness of Ramsay’s orchestration.

Its minimalist approach may at times be alienating, and certain issues raised and never returned to. But with a tone as consistent as this, you trust Ramsay and submerge with Phoenix – who possesses his characters with a staggering conviction, and assures us that there are more than a few surprises in store for the next role. Once we’re seated, the envelope-pushing Phoenix has us right where he wants us, where all the greats have wanted us… startled, stunned, and left with no idea of what’s to follow. 

Dir: Lynne Ramsay

Scr: Lynne Ramsay, based on the novel by Jonathan Ames

Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Ekaterina Samsonov, John Doman, Alex Manette, Judith Roberts

Prd: Rosa Attab, Pascal Caucheteux, James Wilson, Lynne Ramsay

DOP: Thomas Townend

Music: Jonny Greenwood

Country: UK, France, USA

Year: 2017

Runtime: 90 mins

You Were Never Really Here is in cinemas now.