"Hey Joe, where you going with that gun in your hand?"
Lynne Ramsay's new thriller You Were Never Really Here is a dark, violent, often dispiriting, often confusing film that has been masterfully directed to create both a sense of unease and a sense of suspense that tightens up continually as its relatively short running time of ninety minutes plays out. At some points it feels like it might explode.
Much like the film's chief protagonist. Joaquin Phoenix plays bearded, unsmiling, loner Joe who's returned from Cincinatti to live with his mum (Judith Roberts) in New York and appears to spend most of his time playing with knives, trying to asphyxiate himself, or wandering the streets of New York staring into space. He manages to be simultaneously both utterly disconnected from the world around him and painfully hyper aware of it.
Joe's entire existence seems to be teetering on a perilous tightrope between wanting to continue the crazy experiment that is living and the constant desire to take control of his own inevitable death by doing himself in. We see him contemplating suicide nearly as much as we hear him talk. Joe is a man of few words. His actions tend to speak quite loudly.
Scars and flashbacks make it abundantly clear that something very bad has happened in Joe's past and yet our sympathy remains tempered by the suspicion that Joe may not have been entirely innocent himself. Certainly, as he takes on the job that will form the bulk of whatever plotline the film has, rescuing a young girl from a hotel where a paedophile ring operates, we see that he's not averse to dishing out retribution of the most brutal kind. A man that handy with a hammer should seek recruitment in the construction industry. Or maybe as a high court judge.
The world Ramsay has created for Phoenix is a very precisely imperfect one. One where our bodies fail us (nosebleeds, paunches, greying unkempt hair, and wrinkles all feature regularly, and often in extreme close up) and the gritty, grisly details of life are unavoidable.
Many scenes are shot at night or in the rain but Ramsay's experimentation, and total insistence on telling Jonathon Ames' story her way, leads her to shoot scenes, often the most bloodthirsty ones in the film, through the filter of CCTV cameras or ceiling fitted mirrors. Jonny Greenwood's occasionally jarring, occasionally atonal, often driving score ramps up the overall feeling of disquiet and when he introduces some pop songs they sound other worldly, almost completely alien.
It's unlikely you'll have heard 'If I Knew You Were Coming I'd Have Baked A Cake' or Charlene's 'I've Never Been To Me' played in such unsettling conditions before. Greenwood even cheekily lobs in Albert Hammond's original of 'The Air That I Breathe' - not the first time that Radiohead have contributed to an upsurge in royalties for that particular song.
At times I was reminded of Inherent Vice, that film's very loose adherence to anything resembling a traditional narrative, but there was also something about the way Ramsay and her cinematographer Thomas Townend gave mundane hotel lobbies, taxi cabs, and delicatessens a nightmarish feel that reminded me of Under The Skin.
When Joe arrives at a grand mansion intent on some very serious damage the film has echoes of Denis Villeneueve's Sicario and in the sense of a desperate, damaged man unable to escape himself I found similarities to Steve McQueen's brilliant Hunger.
These are not bad films to be compared to but You Were Never Really Here is very much its own thing. At times it's a frustrating watch, as humans we have a desire to know who is good, who is bad, and, even more so, to know what the fuck is going on. But this film doesn't give us what we want, doesn't make it easy for us, it plants uncomfortable thoughts in our heads that we may find growing in the days following our viewing of it.
Although the rest of the cast, (Ekaterina Samsonov as Nina, the teenage girl who's been sold into prostitution, and John Doman (Major Rawls in The Wire) as John McCleary, Joe's epistaxis stricken governor, especially) put in decent performances the film is all about Phoenix, his brooding physicality and the way a lot of the action appears to be played out in his head before we see it on the screen.
Ramsay's done a great job in directing an already fine actor to get the best out of him and she's also chosen well by calling Greenwood in to score the film. In lesser hands this could've been as confused and gratuitously messy as Joe's blood splattered face but with the triumvirate of Ramsay, Phoenix, and Greenwood in control it's something of a minor, if flawed, masterpiece. A slow burner I reckon.