Lynne Ramsay drives us through an internal horror show set in the gloomy, sordid backstreets of New York. It features Joaquin Phoenix giving one of the performances of his life, some slick editing, and utterly absorbing audio/visual pleasures. We’re only a couple of months into 2018, but already this is one of the highlights.
Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) lives in the suburbs where he cares for his is infirm mother. He’s an old school hired hand dealing only in cash monies, payment of which is granted upon completion of undesirable jobs that either involve killing people or severely hurting them. Joe is tasked by politician Votto (Alex Manette – who also starred in Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin) to retrieve his teenage daughter, Nina, from a high-end brothel where she is forced to work after being kidnapped. Joe accepts the job and we’re dragged along through the nightmarish hellscape that’s never quite clear whether it’s realism or Joe’s psyche.
Early on we learn that children and childhood seem to be somewhat of a trigger for Joe’s hallucinations and flashbacks. Images of kids playing on a war ravaged Afghan plain, violent recollections of Joe himself being abused as a child. The symbolic cinematography is suitably ambiguous for both the subconscious and reality. Not too vague to not know what’s going on, but not explicit enough to be a giveaway, it presents enough of a glimpse of Joe’s twisted thoughts to feel empathetic yet not be entirely sure if he’s kosher.
This affinity for youngsters means that he shares a particular bond with Nina, and Ekaterina Samsonov (I’d not seen her in anything until this) gives an astute performance in her role. It’s a fairly silent depiction but the two play off of each other wonderfully. Almost mirroring Joe’s outsider angst, she acts as a calming influence on our anti-hero. As the pair becomes further embroiled in a conspiracy that ramps up the frenetic edits and hallucinations, there are real moments of tenderness between the two in an otherwise irregular friendship, bookended by extreme bloodshed.
Despite some really gruesome moments most of the unease comes from the suggestion of violence, almost tricking the mind into picturing the brutality to induce a feeling of dread. Soundtracked by captivating sound design and Jonny Greenwood’s macabre score, the evocative visuals imply the horror. Whilst this doesn’t detract from the barbarity of the act, it does keep the film from descending into a gore fest. That, and a trim 90-minute run time, ensures that although everything is derailing around Joe the film stays very much on track.
You Were Never Really Here manages to keep equilibrium between a thriller and an explorative psychological drama. Ramsay is able to safeguard the engaging, gripping story as well as the integrity of the artistry. I left the cinema in no doubt that the film was most definitely there.