Director Lynne Ramsay's career has been a bumpy road. She’s seen tremendous festival success, from her 1999 debut Ratcatcher through to 2011’s Bafta-nominated We Need To Talk About Kevin. At the same time, she’s seen projects go asunder in quite explosive ways, from the turmoil of Natalie Portman’s Jane Got A Gun to the complications surrounding her involvement with Peter Jackson’s Lovely Bones adaptation. Not unlike Ken Lonergan with his protracted battles for artistic vision, Ramsay at once was being characterised as uncompromising and obstinate.
Like Lonergan, then, it’s all the more rewarding to see her return be such a glorious one. For You Were Never Really Here belies its title and leaves a serious mark. It’s a film of assured direction, with memorable sequences that playfully toy with genre expectations. It also features a hulking, powerful performance by Joaquin Phoenix as Joe that provides the kind of physicality we usually reserve for the likes of Tom Hardy.
Story wise this is a tale of a hitman of sorts, a kind of vigilante fixer for hire off to settle scores. He’s as meticulous as he is brutal, using a ball peen hammer as his weapon of choice. His mannerisms and capabilities inject a thread of jet-black comedy, with even the most violent moments somehow caught up in an almost operatic tone. This collision between the brutal, intimate reality and the more oblique visual elements provides a thrilling feast of image and action.
From the opening notes one can peg a Johnny Greenwood score, and once again his soundscapes elevate tremendously what are already some pretty stellar visuals. As the character works his way through his obstacles, both from his past and current travails, the mix of clanking piano strings and impeccably realized sound effects make for one of the more audiophilic films you’re likely to encounter.
Along the way there’s a typically noir-ish conspiracy at play, crosscut with memories of Joe’s past not dissimilar to George Miller’s recent Mad Max: Fury Road intro. Judith Roberts plays Joe’s mom, a wisecracking lady that seems to be the one constant in his life. Young Ekaterina Samsonov plays one of the most critical characters in the film, the object of much of the narrative and practically a living McGuffin.
Allusions to Taxi Driver may be obvious, but the connections are far more to Schrader’s psychic explorations than the beat-by-beat action elements. As adapted from Jonathan Ames’ novella, Ramsay manages to make the film completely in her voice, constantly toying at our understandings of place and time while never veering into incoherence. This is a work where you sit back and let a master storyteller guide you – you may not always know where you’re at, but are constantly rewarded for your patience.
A supremely stylish and effective revenge thriller, in a slate where dreary conversations and pastoral settings dominate this injection of adrenaline, is a welcome feeling. Yet Ramsay’s film is no less ambitious than its art-film cousins, using the threads of genre in sophisticated ways that throughout manage to dazzle. A smart, effective, brilliant piece of filmmaking, Ramsay manages to supersede any hesitations about her downtime, making You Were Never Really Here a truly exciting piece of enlightened entertainment.