You Were Never Really Here (UK-France-US 2017)

Joaquin Phoenix as Joe

For just her fourth feature in eighteen years, Lynne Ramsay has again opted for a literary adaptation after Morvern Callar (2002) and We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011). She has worked on several other projects in between her finished features but has walked out or been pushed out of many of her starts – she is a woman who knows what she wants and won’t be coerced into anything she doesn’t want to do. You Were Never Really Here won the screenplay prize at Cannes and the best actor prize for Joaquin Phoenix, despite Ramsay’s contention that the film was not ‘completed’. The film now on release is 90 minutes long and the Cannes cut was 85 minutes.

It’s ironic that a ‘visual director’ like Ramsay (who trained first as a photographer) should be interested in stories first published as novels or novellas/short stories such as You Were Never Really Here by Jonathan Ames. But then perhaps Lynne Ramsay is interested in finding a visual world to convey what I imagine to be the inner world of the protagonist Joe as presented in the original. If so she has certainly achieved her aim along with her collaborators – principally Thomas Townend as her cinematographer, Joe Bini as editor and Jonny Greenwood as music composer. All three were also with Ramsay on We Need to Talk About Kevin (Townend was the DoP for the Spanish shoot on that film).

Joe with his mother (played by Judith Roberts)

Joaquin Phoenix plays Joe as a shambling hulk whose heavy beard and unkempt appearance belies his abilities as an enforcer/protector. His body carries the scars which perhaps represent his internal sufferings. He has just finished a job in Cincinatti and when he returns to New York the first clues to a possible unravelling of his business appear. Joe suffers flashbacks which reveal traumas from his time in the Army in the Gulf and in the FBI as well as earlier memories of abuse by his father. All the traumas involve memories of children or teenagers who have been killed or damaged. We are in no doubt that Joe’s next job, to find and rescue the teenage daughter of a politician believed to have been taken to act as a young prostitute in a brothel, is something he will be committed to completing successfully. I won’t spoil any more of the narrative except to observe that Joe has to deal with a spiralling chaos of events. This is a very violent film – many people are killed. But Lynne Ramsay is not interested in the acts of violence as such, more their effect on Joe himself. His weapon of choice is usually a ball-pein hammer. Townend’s camera is often close to Joe, framing parts of his body. Shallow focus blurs the lights of the night-time city. We cannot be distant observers because we are often dragged into the fray. If you are squeamish like me, you may find the explorations of Joe’s punished body too painful to watch. The young Russian-American actor Ekaterina Samsonov is excellent as the young woman Joe rescues.

Joe with Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov)

Several critics have made references to the film as a modern take on Scorsese/Schrader’s classic Taxi Driver (US 1976). It’s not hard to see why. Martin Scorsese, his cinematographer Michael Chapman and composer Bernard Herrmann produced a film that was as aesthetically powerful as that of Ramsay/Townend/Greenwood trio. In addition both films feature an army veteran, a young prostitute and a politician in New York City. But the films are actually quite different in terms of both aesthetics and plot even if they have a similar impact on audiences. Ramsay’s use of flashbacks and fantasy/dream sequences creates a different tone to that of Taxi Driver.

Lynne Ramsay on set with Joaquin Phoenix

You Were Never Really Here is such a ‘rich text’ in terms of camerawork, sound, mise en scène and performance that I need to see it again before making other comments. I’d like to congratulate Film 4, BFI and the French company Why Not Productions for having faith in Lynne Ramsay, one of the UK’s most talented and committed filmmakers. I hope she gets another worthwhile project underway whenever she’s ready to commit herself again.

Here’s Lynne Ramsay talking about the film on Film 4:

2 comments

  1. keith1942

    I was seriously unimpressed with this film. I thought that ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin; was over-wrought, and over-saturated with red. This film also seems to suffer from excess, which is ‘hammered’ home. I also felt that there were deliberate visual and aural references to ‘Taxi Driver’, though Roy is correct, they are very different films.
    I thought that ‘Ratcatcher’ was extremely good and that ‘Movern Caller’ was very good as well. But since then I rather think Ramsay has lost the plot. Roy comments on her independence. But she seems to suffer, like other young directors, when she leaves her native territory for the USA, even if in the Independent sector. I thought Andrea Arnold’s recent US-based film was inferior to her two earlier British-based films.
    I feel similar things happen to European directors who move into internationally funded English-language films.
    Is this a sad reflection of the decreasing interest in non-mainstream film?

  2. John Hall

    I was disappointed in this film, and perhaps alone in this as my opinion probably runs counter to every review I have seen. The shock-value dream sequence which emerges towards the end is an easy and cheap thrill to be encountered on most recent films on the Horror channel, and done better by a lot of them. I find it lazy writing on the whole. But, as I say, that just seems to be me. I do not know why Ramsay took on an action film as that is not where her talents lie, as was apparent in the school massacre in ‘Kevin’, and the action elements of this one are therefore viewed elliptically.

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