After having watched You Were Never Really Here, you struggle to decide if you have just watched a masterful and artistic piece of cinema or something that mellows in its own moodiness. In retrospect, Lynne Ramsay has managed to conjure up more of the former, and delivered one of the most transfixing films of the decade.
Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) is a muscle-for-hire who is recruited by a senator to rescue his teenage daughter from a child prostitution ring. What seems like a straightforward if uncomfortable job soon turns out to run far deeper and, amid the chaos, Joe must cope with his own repressed memories clawing their way back to the surface.
It is a testing film to watch. The most insignificant sounds, from squelching boots to coffee running through a filter, somehow fill you with gut-wrenching dread. Johnny Greenwood, who worked with Ramsay on We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011), delivers a score made for haunting the back alleys and dingy corridors of New York, where most of the story unfolds. What you hear is the film’s most unnerving aspect and its greatest strength.
Every word and small gesture seems to bear significance, especially in the interactions between Joe and his mother (an excellent Judith Roberts). The violence, when it comes, is only seen in flashes of brutality. Like Taxi Driver (1976), this is not so much a film about bloody conflict as it is a dissection of a fractured male psyche.
Phoenix is a perfect fit for the role, and his Best Actor award at Cannes is well deserved. Joe’s brooding demeanour, which Phoenix captures so well, adds terrifying unpredictability to his character. He switches from moments of calm and serenity to outbursts of pure fury with ease, encapsulating all of Joe’s contradictions and inner demons. He is matched, however, by Ekaterina Samsonov, whose silence as the kidnapped girl Nina is almost as uncomfortable as when Joe takes a hammer to someone’s head.
Ramsay adds moments of style and surrealism, especially in the ending scenes, which highlight Joe’s plight. Here she lays bare for her audience an army veteran who is never seen or heard by anyone other than those closest to him. Someone who suffers in silence, and who only seems himself when throttling his latest victim. It is not for everyone, but it was never meant to be. Regardless, Lynne Ramsay has staked her claim as one of the leading filmmakers of today.
Image: Studio Canal