You Were Never Really HereCannes Film Festival 2017
The ghost of Taxi Driver looms large over Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here, a fragmented, twitchy anti-thriller about deep rooted existential angst. Joaquin Phoenix co-stars with his beard as Joe, a war veteran who lives with his mother and appears to work as a private investigator, responsible for fetching lost children. “Appears” is the operative word, as Joe is, to put it bluntly, not really there. Ramsay operates at peak poetry of details in the early sections, where images and sounds replace any kind of traditional plot development. We see Joe suffocating himself with a bag; a child whispering numbers; and a blood-drenched hammer, rinsed off in the toilet.
Joe is a violent man. He runs into dangerous men in his job, and he doesn’t hesitate to bash their head in if the situation requires it. One sequence sees the audience follow his ascent up an apartment block through black-and-white CCTV footage, and with stunning editorial instincts, Ramsay cuts between time frames – separated by jumps in music – and removes the act of violence itself, only showing the lunge and its after effects. His moral free-fall is eventually slowed by the discovery of vulnerable young Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), a politician’s daughter whom he rescues from the sex trade. But is that enough to rescue Joe from his death wish?
Ramsay is an insanely talented director, whose previous films – Ratcatcher and Morvern Callar – are some of the best to emerge from these isles. And while her latest has her innovative, poetic spirit, it’s oddly lacking in emotional affect, investing heavily in the abstract and sometimes baffling in its hallucinogenic qualities. The director was working on this film right up to the festival deadline, and it shows; there are themes of child abuse and PTSD worked into the narrative, but they never seem to emerge at the right time or place – they’re just there, like pieces of a puzzle that can be assembled in any order.
A few other critics have noted this is part of the charm; that, like Joe, we are supposed to be experiencing a jumbled mess of emotions and thoughts. This is contradicted, though, by a rather straightforward visual mood and mode of character, implying there is further footage out there to deepen the characters beyond their immediate appearance. Phoenix is captivating and intense in the lead role, and there are images and moments in this as good as Ramsay has ever cultivated. Nonetheless, it would be nice to see this when it’s finished – as antithetical to the film’s spirit as that may be.
You Were Never Really Here does not have a UK release date yet.
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Watch a clip from You Were Never Really Here here: