Director: Lynne Ramsay
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Alessandro Nivola, Ekaterinburg Samsonov
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This review was originally published at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival.
Scottish filmmaker Lynne Ramsay has made one of the most hellacious anti-genre genre flicks in quite some time. It’s most obvious touchstone is Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), but its elliptical structure and time-hopping narrative recalls both John Boorman’s Point Blank (1967) and Steven Soderbergh’s The Limey (1999). Those may or may not be inspirations, but it’s very much a Ramsay work – achingly poetic, dark in mood and mysterious – enigmatic, even – at heart. It would be snooty and incorrect to label her film as rising above ‘genre’, as if the director is intrigued by crime pictures but daren’t sully her indie cred by turning in something generic. Ramsay has refashioned a crime drama (based on a novella by Jonathan Ames) to suit her own artistic expression and aesthetic interests. In many ways, this is a daring piece of cinema that uses a cinematic box of tricks not just to explore a man’s life with post-traumatic stress, but express the dizziness and agony through editing and surreal grace notes. Ramsay hops, skips, dances, tangos and pirouettes around all genre expectations. It’s a movie with wow factor.
You Were Never Really Here might star a big-bushy-bearded Joaquin Phoenix but, no, this isn’t a sequel to his and Casey Affleck’s rap mockumentary, 2010’s hilarious leg-puller, I’m Still Here. Joe (Phoenix) is a dude who gets things done for people. Most of the time he lets his hammer do the talking. Hired to rescue a senator’s daughter from a nonce ring in New York City, Phoenix’s adorably goofy yet melancholic portrait of a tortured soul running out of time and simultaneously up against forces (criminal and political) he really shouldn’t be messing with is one of his finest roles.
Word on the Croisette is Ramsay had finished editing the film (which clocked in at a brisk 83 mins) mere days before presenting it to the world’s gathered press. Some smelled a turkey, but they were dead wrong. You Were Never Really Here is the most exciting experiment in combining art cinema and genre flicks since Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives. Brutal in feel and mood (most of the violence actually occurs off screen) and eccentric in approach, Ramsay’s take on violent theatrics and a loner figure, who’s life is saturated in violence, is the antithesis of every action movie hero, well, just about ever. Joe has seen too much in his life – too much that is ugly and bad – but Ramsay makes him endearing rather than distantly weird.
Is he a knight in shining armour or a total lunatic? That’s the great beauty of You Were Never Really Here – it isn’t about redemption or one man making a difference. Joe is a new kind of hero – a frazzled and clueless bruiser who realised long ago the world is pulsating with absurdity and venality. Ramsay’s latest is a dazzler.