Lynne Ramsay's most recent outing drops you into a world of pain from the offset with rolling shots of horror from our bearded protagonist Joe's (Joaquin Pheonix) most recent job. With the tone well and truly set, we see him cleaning his hammer, no doubt used to bludgeon his most recent victim to a brutal end. He finishes off and leaves with his work done, setting us up with a character that appears lifeless behind the eyes, with no mercy in his heart.
Joe's day job is rescuing young girls from sex trafficking, but as he says himself, he's just a hired gun. He's no hero saving the city from sexual predators, he simply will rescue one girl at a time, for a price. Here he is tasked with rescuing the daughter (Ekaterina Samsonov) of a Senator (Alex Manette), but things go awry and with a suspense-filled sequence, we see his weaknesses exploited.
Phoenix knocks it out of the park with his portrayal of our dishevelled shell of a man, littered with scars both physical and mental. He is not the Hollywood style hitman we're used to seeing, but rather an overweight, unkempt man that lives at home with his elderly mother. Pheonix and Ramsay do an excellent job in humanising something that would normally be considered a monster, they layer on weakness and good intentions to make him different from your usual hired gun. These weaknesses manifest throughout the film in the form of extremely brief flashbacks to his childhood and time in the Navy Seals, which only add to the suspense of any sequence with their disorientation and implied horror. Ramsay also seems to isolate violence away from the character, any time we see Joe inflicting pain on someone the shot is different, in particular, one scene of him raiding a brothel only seen through CCTV footage. By doing this, Ramsay makes us almost sick in the brutality we are witnessing, but associating it with an almost different Joe.
This brutality is a theme that carries throughout the short 88-minute film, he uses it as a method of release from the torment of PTSD from his Navy Seal past and troubled childhood. Ramsay does not hold back and shows Joe's anguish in full, throughout the movie we see him simulate suffocation and drowning as a brief escape from his past, but only to be brought back to his cold reality. This adds to the sense that he is his own worst enemy but at the same time creates an idea that the only one that is going to take this man down is himself. Each and every flashback is cut quickly leaving us wondering more and giving us the feeling of confusion and disorientation associated with such a mental illness. However, each time he is brought back from his suicidal fantasy by something he cares about very much be it his mother, or the prospect of rescuing an innocent child from the terror of a sex trafficking ring.
Another star of the show is the soundtrack, a tense, thumping, sometimes disjointed backing beat is contrasted with the jolly yet eerie little jingles Joe sings with his dementia-riddled mother. Each and every beat surrounding every sequence coerces perfectly with the on-screen drama in creating an atmosphere thick with tension and fear.
Overall, You Were Never Really Here, is an excellent mix of Ramsay's style, Phoenix's talents and a suspense-filled, gut-wrenching soundtrack to create a thriller in the true sense of the word, oozing tension throughout. The viscous violence paired with the weakness of an elderly mother and troubled past create a complex humanised monster that we feel empathy for and side with his cause. However, at times, the film felt too slow and dull making that 88-minute run time seem much longer.
My Score: 8/10