Under the gaze of a microscope, everyday objects can seem immense. A fracture in a metal beam becomes a vast canyon and a human eyeball a scattered nebula. You Were Never Really Here takes the same approach to cinema. At a festival where even some of the better films were unable to transcend their contained scenarios, You Were Never Really Here delves so deep into one man’s innermost self that it felt like the most monumental film at this year’s festival, and the very best.
Joaquin Phoenix won Best Actor for his portrayal of Joe, a traumatized veteran working as a hitman. His latest job sees him investigating the abduction of a politician’s young daughter and his search leads him into a depraved world of child prostitution. The horror he exposes latches onto his psyche and drives him to wreak bloody vengeance upon these evil men.
Director Lynne Ramsay (We Need to Talk About Kevin and Ratcatcher) has described You Were Never Really Here as a noir, but she draws heavily on the horror genre. The film plays like Taxi Driver as told by Cormac McCarthy, the author of such brutally brilliant works of American literature as “Blood Meridian” and “No Country for Old Men”. McCarthy’s horrific and chilling use of violence and his melding of hyperrealism and surrealism leap off the page and paint a picture of an entire nation. Ramsay’s film does exactly the same off the screen.
One scene features random pages of a book being roughly torn out. That moment acts as a visual metaphor for the entire film (itself an adaptation of a Jonathan Ames novella of the same name). This is a familiar noir revenge thriller condensed and reshaped into its purest form. But, for all the missing pages, the portrait of this character is so complete. Phoenix is perfect for the role. Each and every frame of the film revolves around his character, and there are few actors out there capable of excavating the instinctual roots of broken men in quite the same way. Joe’s painful bodily scars run deep within his soul and Phoenix’s every movement, whether physical or emotional, aches.
Ramsay once again teams with composer Jonny Greenwood after working together on We Need to Talk About Kevin. As we’ve come to expect from Greenwood’s mesmerizing collaborations with Paul Thomas Anderson (particularly There Will Be Blood and The Master), his work here is brooding, atmospheric and deeply unsettling. Likewise, Ramsay’s trademark expressionistic use of color is once again at the forefront and she’s found a perfect canvas in the form of the neo-noir city setting. Cinematographer Thomas Townend captures the neon glows like a Michael Mann film viewed through a kaleidoscope.
The film manages to be both a satisfying narrative experience, with a moving moment of catharsis, and a film that feels almost cyclical; as if you could immediately watch it again as one continual experience. The events of the finale would then serve as the horrors of Joe’s past that he can’t escape from at the beginning of the film. A recurring motif is that of a spoken countdown and count up, which gives weight to this circular, or even palindromic, reading of the film.
The version of You Were Never Really Here that screened at Cannes was unfinished (there were no end credits, for one thing) but I hope Ramsay doesn’t change too much because this lean and ferocious 85-minute version is close to perfect.