Lynne Ramsay’s brutal thriller, “You Were Never Really Here,” based on the book by Jonathan Ames, made waves last year at the Cannes Film Festival, where it played in competition, and won awards for Ramsay’s screenplay and star Joaquin Phoenix’s lead performance. It bypassed the fall festivals on its way to an April release but somewhat unexpectedly popped up in the Spotlight section of the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, a section of the event that’s devoted to films that played elsewhere and also included TIFF hits “The Death of Stalin,” “Beast,” “Sweet Country,” and others this year. When it was announced, the Ramsay instantly became a red-hot ticket with press, ticket buyers, and celebrities crowding the Marc Theatre on Sunday night for its North American premiere. What they saw was something they won’t soon forget—a terrifying vision of a man pushed past the edge of sanity. Echoes of “Taxi Driver” and “Drive” weave their way through this unforgettable film, but it’s also very distinctly a Ramsay production, featuring stunning sound design, striking imagery, and brilliant use of music—in this case, another great score by the one-and-only Jonny Greenwood.
Phoenix stars as Joe, a professional assassin who may be a bit suicidal himself. Ramsay’s script wastes no time narratively, and yet allows for us to see glimpses of Joe’s mental and emotional instability, and even how they were formed by a traumatic childhood. He leans off a train platform, pulling back at just the right moment. He even puts a plastic bag over his head, ripping it at the last second—and Ramsay peppers her film with harrowing flashback images as to where Joe’s dark side may have come from, including a child in a closet with the same kind of dry cleaning bag and a father with a hammer. Oh, that hammer.
You see, a ball pein hammer is Joe’s weapon of choice, which itself is an indication of his pathology. A gunshot is often clean and done from a distance, allowing at least a bit of removal. There’s nothing removed about killing someone with a hammer. And one of Ramsay’s many fascinating touches is the way she imagines a madman’s preparation for homicide. We see Phoenix basically transform himself, diving deep into a near-numbing trance in a sauna before he emerges, ready to do his job.
As with a lot of movies about hitmen, his latest job is the one that changes everything. A State Senator has come to Joe’s boss with the news that his daughter has been kidnapped and put into a sex trafficking ring for minors that basically trades young girls to rich, powerful men looking to satisfy their perversions. The Senator wants his daughter back. And, of course, our hammer-wielding anti-hero gets the job done, but everything goes wrong after he does. You see, the Senator has revealed an underground world that powerful people didn’t want to come to light. And the Senator’s daughter was a “favorite” of a particularly powerful person. Violent retribution rains down on Joe, and this formerly suicidal man finds the will to survive in what is essentially a crusade for righteous vengeance but not in any way that you’d expect.
There are many things to praise about Ramsay’s vision here, but one thing that particularly stands out is her lack of desire to narratively hold anyone’s hand. “You Were Never Really Here” very rarely stops to catch you up on what’s happening, or spell anything out to you thematically. You have to be willing to suspend traditional narrative expectations to appreciate what is almost a dreamlike journey to the dark side. It is a film of such striking, unforgettable imagery, and yet Phoenix’s performance grounds it in such a way that it never becomes a hollow exercise in style. Bulked up in muscle and weight, Phoenix almost appears as if he’s in physical pain throughout much of the film, capturing a man for whom the world has become too bright, too loud, too awful, without overplaying those beats. It’s a film of external beauty in Ramsay’s visual language and sound design but it’s anchored by the internal work of her leading man. It’s that balance, the teamwork between Ramsay and Phoenix, that makes “You Were Never Really Here” so unforgettable, and what will make it a cult hit when it’s released in a few months. In many ways, it already feels like it is. For a lot of you, it’s your new favorite movie in a long time—you just don’t know it yet.