Lynne Ramsey’s You Were Never Really Here follows hitman Joe who specialises in retrieving young girls from the clutches of underground paedophiles and trafficking. He is tasked by a New York senator to retrieve his daughter, Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), who has been kidnapped and to eliminate those who took her by the most violent means possible. The film premiered in the main competition at Cannes FIlm Festival in 2017 where it became one of the most widely discussed films and won two awards for Best Screenplay for Ramsey and Best Actor for Phoenix. It’s rare to see a film win more than one award at Cannes so the hype for the film was huge.From the offset, the film doesn’t hold back in its themes and violence.
The direction is executed with a cat and mouse feel. The camera trailing through Joe’s eyes as he hunts for the perpetrators and their accomplices. What Ramsey does so well is being able to use the protagonist’s perspective as the audience’s entry into the film. Even in scenes when Joe is doing menial tasks like cleaning or singing with his elderly mother, we get a glimpse into the two different lives he has. Ramsey’s screenplay is incredible and tight, managing to create a fully realised character in its 90 minute runtime. The screenplay is written around the character of Joe and the outside context such as politics is only touched on lightly when introduced to joe in an organic way. Despite using multiple locations, the film still has that claustophobic tone throughout. Like previous films by Ramsey, the film heavily relies on its imagery rather than dialogue to tell the story. This works particularly well for You Were Never Really Here as a lot of the scenes only contain Joe and so scenes filled with dialogue would result in an unnatural and jarring experience.
Phoenix’s performance as anticipated is more than deserving of the praise received. Joe is unapologetically violent, trauamtised from childhood and yet he displays affection, especially towards his mother and Nina. Joe’s troubled state of mind is displayed from the beginning as we see him self-suffocating with a plastic bag in order to cope with the flashbacks and trauma in his life. Throughout the film, Ramsey gives us brief glimpses into Joe’s backstory but doesn’t overdo it in a way that the film is anchored down by it. Phoenix’s performance is subtly expressive and he allows himself to go to a place that is uncomfortable and disconcerting, resulting in a character that is highly unpredictable and yet so commanding of the audience’s attention. In my previous post where I discuss my top 5 performances by Phoenix (which you can read here), I have included You Were Never Really Here because I think it is one of the prime examples where the actor truly emcompasses everything about the character.For the score, Ramsey recruits Jonny Greenwood for the second time after her 2011 film We Need to Talk About Kevin. Like Joe’s character, the score flits between intense pieces with a strong and consistent beat which are usually played when he is on the job and more natural and flowing pieces which provide a backing track for scenes with Nina and his mother. The track, “Tree Strings”, which is played as Joe buries his mother is such a poignant moment and the music elevates the scene by assisting in his ephiphany to rescue Nina from her kidnappers. Greenwood is more widely known for his collaborations with Paul Thomas Anderson but his scores for both We Need to Talk About Kevin and You Were Never Really Here assist in elevating and excuting Ramsey’s vision to perfection.
Ramsey is one of the best female directors working in the industry today. She consistently brings out performances that are career-defining such as Phoenix in You Were Never Really Here and Tilda Swinton in We Need to Talk About Kevin. She has a clear vision and isn’t afraid to delve into any topic, particularly those centred around children. The ending to You Were Never Really Here isn’t the all-rounded happy ending you would want from a film that explores child sex trafficking, but Ramsey’s choice to give it the ending that it does have highlights the reality that these children face. Ramsey’s ability to write strong characters is in another league. Her characters aren’t particularly likeable but that doesn’t matter. The characters are the driving force of the film and the fact that they aren’t completely relatable or likeable only serves to add another layer of depth. I think because of this that this makes You Were Never Really Here an outstanding inclusion in Ramsey’s filmography and why it was so successful upon release.
What do you think of You Were Never Really here? Let me know in the comments below!