Scottish writer and director Lynne Ramsay returns to feature filmmaking with You Were Never Really Here, her first film since 2011’s We Need To Talk About Kevin. After walking away from Jane Got Her Gun due to creative differences with the producers, she’s had several years to pick her new project but instead she gave herself a ticking clock challenge. Conceiving an adaptation of Jonathan Ames’ 2013 novella of the same name, she shopped the idea at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival and by the 2017 edition, she was premiering the film, still as a work in project, a mere year later.
You Were Never Really Here sees Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), a former war veteran and FBI agent who despite suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, now makes a living off hunting down missing girls. We see flashes to Joe witnessing a child being murdered in the Gulf War, a pile of Asian girls dead in a shipping container, and to his abusive father.
Joe soon finds himself in over his head when he discovers a politician’s young daughter in an underage brothel in New York and almost as soon as she’s saved, corrupt policeman have seized her back and Joe finds those closest to him are being targeted for retaliation as forces look to cover up their crimes.
This might all sound very familiar to many different action movies over the years, most likely starring Liam Neeson. However, this strips a very recognising genre movie to the barest of bones. Dialogue is at a premium; very little of the plot, motivation and backstory of our characters is ever shown or spelt out. It is left to the audience to fill in those blanks or to just embrace the visceral experience created by Ramsay through sound and music. Yet the tropes and plot are well worn and something more original as always would be appreciated. With a lean run time of 85 minutes, no time is wasted
The movie is more focused on the mindset of Joe than his violent exploits. It is teased that Joe can be an aggressive butcher, this devilish option can be asked upon by those paying for his services in finding the young girls. The audience feels like there will be blood and certain confrontations we might expect the tension to boil over but often the creative choice is to either watch the violence from afar through security cameras or defy expectations about who will be pulling the trigger. At one point when we expect to see Joe unleash his set of skills on a home intruder. Instead, after a brawl in the kitchen, Joe and a killer dying from his wounds, they lay on the floor, holding hands and partake in a singalong to ‘I’ve Never Been to Me’.
Joe despite his ruthlessness with a hammer, Joe is shown to be tender, gentle and kind towards the young girls he saves from the sex trade and to his elderly mother, who he shares a home with. Phoenix throws himself in the role, he puts on the pounds and looks more like a grizzled everyman than a traditional action hero. Even as the web of political intrigue that Joe finds himself in begins to spiral out of control, hid mindset remains the focus and drive. Phoenix says it all with his body language, full of twitches, eyes betraying the trauma he has been through. Joe may the rescuer of young girls and in their limited time together, pre-teen captive Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov) shows that she might be the one rescuing him.
Jonny Greenwood also reunites with Ramsay, fresh off the plaudits for his wonderful Phantom Thread score. Ramsay described the making and design of this story as being like a punk rock show and the score follows in that thinking. Greenwood’s score reflects the mood and thinking of Joe, it feels scrambled, like a punk rock band warming up in the studio, different sounds are clashing, without unison. The sound design as you would expect from a Lynne Ramsay piece is as import as any dialogue and the noises of New York from taxis to traffic sounds frantic and uncomfortable, reflecting the anxieties of Joe.
You Were Never Really Here is a welcome return by Lynne Ramsay and a reminder to those who may have forgotten about her incredible skill set during his absence. To create a movie like this over 29 days in New York is impressive. Ramsay has created a slow burn that never quite explodes, there is the odd spark of flame but defying the expectations of the audience is always a risk, but here it is rewarding. It might be viewed as an art-house Taken by some which would be a fair comparison. Hopefully it will not be such a long wait for another Lynne Ramsay movie, she is truly one of those underrated British talents working in cinema.