Lynne Ramsay’s been wowing us with her deft artistry for some time now; her masterful staging and collapsing of time signatures adding an ethereal quality to Morven Callar and We Need to Talk About Kevin. With You Were Never Really Here she reaffirms her credentials as literary adaptor par excellence; a director who understands how to translate the written word into something distinctly, inviolably cinematic.
Johnathan Ames’s short story becomes a hallucinatory, mesmerising collage of aural and visual textures; a masterpiece of editing and sound design, that succeeds into turning up the cityscape, with its noise, disorientation and threat, while turning down Joaquin Phoenix’s enigmatic and damaged bounty hunter; a low-rent scavenger of stolen children; who manages to be simultaneously central to the narrative and peripheral. Joe’s a character who passes through unseen and, in one of many memorable sequences, appears ghost-like on silent CCTV footage.
With a plot reminiscent of Scorsese’s Taxi Driver – a troubled loner pulled into the world of dirty politics and child exploitation, You Were Never Really Here proves the old adage that it’s not the story but how it’s told that counts. Ramsay’s film stands alone, a world away from the ‘70’s classic, by virtue of its silent qualities.
It’s a film where ephemera and pregnant pauses fill the gaps oft allocated for expository dialogue. Ramsay understands that film’s great beneficence to art is the power of the image and its ability to efficiently add depth to otherwise rote scenarios. You’ve seen a thousand movies where a violent character, thirsty for revenge, attacks the men that wronged him. But you’ve seen very few versions where, having got the information he wanted, he lies with the man he’s mortally wounded, joining him in a rendition of a song from the radio and holding his hand to comfort him as he dies. Phoenix’s character is both brutal and vulnerable, kind and cruel – he’s a damaged protagonist that adds tragedy and pathos to his story, and he barely says a word.
You Were Never Really Here is a great feat of shock and elision; often creating a disjuncture that induces profound discomfort and cuticle-ripping tension. It’s poignant and perfect at ninety minutes; a tonic for those tired of bloated and literal thrillers. Here, for once, style delivers substance.