You Were Never Really Here
Psychopaths have been done to death, and only the best survive. In her new feature You Were Never Really Here, Lynne Ramsay (ever the patient filmmaker) evokes some of the great psycho-dramas in cinema history. Early on in the movie, her central killer pretends to stab his mother like Norman Bates in Psycho. Then he’s involved in a political rabble that reminds one of Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. And like Patrick Bateman’s introduction in American Psycho there’s a constant visual confusion of where the killer really is. This last evocation is almost a motif in this picture. The killer is there, then suddenly not there – like a George Méliès magic trick.
Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) is a working-class hitman, predictably living with his mother. He takes on a job assigned by a New York politician, whose pre-teen daughter (Ekaterina Samsonov) has been captured and dumped in a brothel for paedophiles. But Joe doesn’t realise the complications that will be thrown his way.
Like Ramsay’s last movie We Need to Talk About Kevin and the Netflix series Mindhunter, this is a psycho-drama centred on character rather than blood. There are few scenes containing the sort of violence we expect from this type of character, often jump-cutting to corpses post-mortem, to the extent where seeing blood is shocking. Considering the modern anesthetisation to violence, this is a rarity to behold. We get the sense that this particular psycho doesn’t really like what he’s doing, but has to do it.
Exploring Joe’s character further, we sharply jump back-and-forth between his abusive childhood and gruesome experiences in the Gulf War. These flashbacks are never explained in detail, but we get the gist. Their brevity, often composed of only one or two shots, is enough to understand his hurt. Phoenix’s manic voiceover – relaying warped thoughts – and Jonny Greenwood’s rough and rusty electric soundtrack engross the viewer all the more into the protagonist’s disturbed mindset.
You Were Never Really Here is a searing, uncomfortable character movie, which unfolds with a lethally blunt patience. It’s a bold move from Ramsay to restrict the violence, but it doesn’t always work. It’s perfect for Kevin because that film was about the mother and not the psycho-child. And although Phoenix perfectly encapsulates his character’s quiet brutality, there’s still a thirst for blood from the audience. Maybe we’re the real psychopaths.
You Were Never Really Here is released nationwide on 9th March 2018.
Watch the trailer for You Were Never Really Here here: