Published Apr 17, 2018"I don't know what the fuck's going on."
Joaquin Phoenix's character says this partway through You Were Never Really Here, but it's an understandable reaction throughout. The Lynne Ramsay-directed adaptation of Jonathan Ames' 2013 novel is heavy on both style and substance, but keeps the latter heavily obscured by dazzling displays of the former. It doles out information in a slow but steady drip, enough to keep you aware of some of the context, but never enough to spell it all out. It's dizzying, horrifying and utterly compelling.
You Were Never Really Here reads like an instant classic. It has a distinctive visual style, a compelling story, brilliant performances and, of course, a signature song ("Angel Baby" by Rosie and the Originals). Joaquin Phoenix stars as Joe, a combat veteran and former FBI agent who spends his time rescuing trafficked girls and taking care of his elderly mother. Phoenix delivers a stunning performance as a mercenary with both a big heart and hair-trigger temper, and delicately weaves both sides of the character together in a performance that stands among his best.
Ramsay, not content to let her excellent screenplay do all the work, commands the screen with visual style. She hides the film's goriest moments just out of frame, or through a ceiling mirror, or via surveillance footage; instead of bogging the film down with gratuitous violence, it keeps the focus on the suspense. There's no sadistic payoff, which makes the violence feel important and devoid of masculine bloodlust.
Not that the film isn't visually indulgent. Joe's struggle with PTSD is showcased in striking, haunting visuals, with an endless stream of iconic images and sequences peppered throughout the film. Told from Joe's perspective, the film takes a curatorial tone in terms of what is important to Joe: Not the violence and espionage, but the feelings, the emotional impact, the desire to take care of people. Joe is a complex character whose nuances are expertly explored by both Phoenix and Ramsay herself, whose strong directorial hand makes every facet of Joe's thought process comes through, even when the context doesn't.
Ramsay doesn't let any of film's conventions come through easily — even Jonny Greenwood's score is often jammed in with diegetic sound, making it hard to discern his Four Tet-lite juxtaposition between orchestral strings and jarring electronics — but she makes the effort worth it. You Were Never Really Here takes a difficult approach to a difficult story, but Ramsay's strong vision has led to one of the year's best films. (Elevation Pictures)