Oddly, when you lay out the plot of You Were Never Really Here, a feverish nightmare from the frequently hiatus-prone Scottish writer-director Lynne Ramsay (Morvern Callar, We Need To Talk About Kevin) it seems disarmingly straight-forward, generic even. A film about a hitman screwing up a simple job and getting unintentionally tangled up in a conspiracy of people who are even worse than he is (love interest optional) isn’t a Cannes darling, it’s the plot of most films starring Keanu Reeves. Despite the plot’s similarities to the kind of films generally found on sale in motorway petrol stations, Ramsay’s fourth feature is no lowest common denominator genre piece. The film is less hard-boiled than boiled alive: You Were Never Really Here wears it’s miserabilism like a badge of (dis)honour and Ramsay has stripped the extraneous fat off its celluloid bones with a ferocity that would give starving piranha pause. The finished product, skeletal, glitchy and borderline hallucinogenic has as much in common with horror as action; The Expendables this ain’t.
Joaquin Phoenix, who has never seen a deeply damaged role that he didn’t like, plays Joe, a traumatised Ex-US Marine who since his discharge has applied his (to be fair not massively transferable) skill at killing people into the contract murder business, specifically tracking down young girls who have been pulled into sex slavery and liberating them from their captors with what Apocalypse Now referred to as “extreme prejudice”. Whilst it’s been fairly de rigeur for action movie stars to bulk up their muscles, Phoenix ignores this (faintly homoerotic) rule of the genre and instead has piled on weight until he looks like a hulking slab carved out of blubber and wood into an impressionistically human shape. This is more intimidating than it sounds; with his face hidden behind a scraggly beard and hair combo that ensnares his head like creeping vines across a forgotten statue and (let’s not forget) armed with a blunt hammer, Joe vaguely resembles Michael Myers (of Halloween rather than Austin Powers fame) or Jason Voorhees and when he unleashes his immense capacity for violence it’s a terrifying experience rather than an exhilarating one. He’s taciturn to the point of silent sub-lingual and seemingly only cares about his frail mother, with whom he shares the scars of some great past trauma which the shapeof the film only hints at like a flickering torch momentarily skittering across the vast form of some Stygian Leviathan.
The film is an atonal, chaotic frenzy; the skronks and blats of free jazz reimagined as shattering femur and wrenched gasps. Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood (who recently scored Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Phantom Thread” with ephemeral Debussy-esque piano) knocks off another home run, with a seething angular score, which envelops the film like a flagellatory hair shirt, seemingly ready to lash out blindly at any moment. Contrastingly Phoenix plays Joe with a kind of skinned vulnerability, his eyes channelling the rolling panic of a horse rather than the dead frenzy of a shark. Events force him into the role of protector for Nina (Estaterina Samsonova, a suitably Dostoyevskian name for the role) the daughter of a Senator who seems to be another resident of Joe’s pitch-black world world. The conspiracy from which he must save her involves the kind of all-knowing evil political machinations that seem almost charmingly naïve in the age of the Trump presidency and is as elliptical and smoky as the rest of this extraordinarily contained tale (at 90 minutes, the film is a masterclass in minimalism). You Were Never Really Here contains shades of other directors’ voyages into inner darkness, a stroke of the blood splattered neon of Nicolas Winding Refn’s gruelling Only God Forgives here, a warped reflection of Travis Bickle’s furious gaze there, but it is very much its own beast. Witness it and stagger outside, grateful for the light.