I jumped for joy when I heard that Lynne Ramsay’s new film, the esoteric thriller You Were Never Really Here, would be playing at Sundance this year after it had killed at Cannes last June.
For one, it’s just so fucking nice to have Ramsay back and working after all of the drama of the past few years — there’s something deeply upsetting about a filmmaker of her caliber being kept under the foot of the actor/producer monster, especially on the set of a film that would ultimately become something as trite as Jane Got a Gun — and it’s nice to see her also finding new compatriots to work with. This time, her protagonist is Joaquin Phoenix, who is swole and scarred and bearded, and he’s the kind of actor that Ramsay’s image-emphasis filmmaking excels with. You Were Never Really Here is a tremendously upsetting study of the effects of trauma and violence, and the devastation at the heart of it all. It’s Ramsay’s take on Taken, a fierce disassembly of the lurid spectacle in the revenge thriller, and will probably be one of the best movies of the year.
Joe (Phoenix) is a damaged man through and through, and he has one hell of a troubled past, only ever glimpsed by us in fleeting moments of tragedy in the space between his steps. He had a rough childhood, that we can tell, and it’s obvious that’s one of the reasons why he still shares a Manhattan apartment with his mother, who is slowly fading away due to dementia. He was once a soldier, and carries traumas from that as well (though thankfully Ramsey never lets this slide into the realm of the “broken vet”), both of which he medicates with prescription pills he buys from a dealer. Still, Joe has a job that his mother knows nothing about, and he’s shrouded in mystery and darkness to all of the people that he encounters.
He is an “asset recovery specialist” who tracks down missing girls, and he has a handler and a very specific method of dealing with his clients. His weapon of choice is one that you can find at any given hardware store: A ball-peen hammer, which he wields with a ferocity that shatters skulls. He’s given a high profile job by his handler: to recover the daughter of a scandal-wracked New York senator from a gang of rich pedophiles who traffic girls, and the job seems to go off without a hitch. And then he’s double-crossed and nearly killed, the girl is kidnapped, and Joe’s life starts to unravel over the course of the day.
If this sounds generic, you’re not totally wrong: Ramsay is working with the nuts and bolts of the “hitman gets revenge” genre framework to explore things that plenty of filmmakers avoid in their own films: Namely, the generational damage that violence can inflict on the psyche of the perpetrator and the victim, and how those roles ultimately will become fused by the end. You have all of these little grace notes in Phoenix’s performance that speak to this: The way he vomits as he enters the door code to get into the first snakepit, steeling himself both for the horrors of what he’s about to see, as well as the brutal acts that he’s going to commit (Ramsay keeps us afar from the violence and its aestheticization, preferring to show us most of it either in aftermath or in grainy security camera footage). Or perhaps the scene that probably won him the Best Actor award at Cannes, a naked expression of grief and failure at the end of this film that will play a number of different ways to different audience but that I found absolutely and totally heartbreaking. It’s a fearless and rousing performance by one of our greatest living actors — thank Jesus he’s somehow avoided the easy payday of the franchise film thus far — and is essential to watch if you even have a passing interest in the craft of acting.
Equally as impressive as Phoenix’s performance is Paul Davies’ sound design and Jonny Greenwood’s fascinating score. Davies incorporates a number of interesting motifs to keep you on your toes: intrusive sounds take the place of thoughts in the film’s portrait of traumatic anxiety, and his recurring usage of voiced-over countdowns from 30 from several of the actors have immense and interesting dramatic importance to what Ramsay’s success in this film. It’s a tapestry of other people’s conversations and the honking of car horns and the bitter evil of the sonic sexualization of innocence, all buffeted by Greenwood’s score, which acts as a both a darkened vision of the steel-drum Commando soundtrack and an elegy for the terrors of modern violence.
There are simply too many people to highlight, given all the incredible work that happens in this film, though editor Joe Bini also deserves some amount of the praise, given that his hyperkinetic editing never approaches the same frustrating levels that always sink Aronofsky pictures. And behind it all lies Ramsay, her confident hand guiding us along Joe’s worst night, giving us tiny bits of what we want to know but never enough so that we know for sure what’s going on. Without a doubt, You Were Never Really Here is the best film I saw at Sundance this year, and it just fucking devastated me. There are no easy endings here.
Nick Johnston ran amok at Sundance before he became ill, though his ailment had nothing to do with the film he just reviewed. Follow him @onlysaysficus. Image via Amazon Studios.