You Were Never Really Here: Disquieting Psychological Drama Earns its Cannes Stripes

By Liam Lacey 

Rating: A

Simultaneously a vigilante potboiler and weirdly tender study of psychological trauma, Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here fully lives up to its reputation as a “divisive” film. The Scottish director’s fourth feature film closed the Cannes competition last May, winning best screenplay and best actor for Joaquin Phoenix as a New York brute-for-hire who specializes in rescuing children from sex traffickers.

A scene from the gritty You Were Never Really Here

A scene from the gritty You Were Never Really Here

Phoenix, who more embodies than acts the role, has little dialogue but a tonne of presence.  He looks like the kind of guy you really wouldn’t want to share a prison cell with… or perhaps even a subway car. He’s wears scars on his torso, beefy with fat and muscle. He has lank ponytailed hair, a greying beard, and a fixed stare that seems to X-ray people rather than see them. Even when he squashes a jellybean, it sounds like cracking a bone. 

Joe (along with the viewers) suffers from alarming, hard-to-understand flashbacks, involving a double-layer of traumas — apparently as a child abuse victim and later, as a combat marine. Frequently, he toys with suicide by knife, jumping off an overpass, or asphyxiation by plastic bag.

When we first meet Joe, he’s in a cheap hotel room washing the blood off his favourite tool, a ball-peen hammer, before sneaking out the hotel through an alley to avoid a police cruiser. It takes a while to sort out that he’s not a run-of-the-mill serial killer but a kind of professional crime-fighter. He even has an agent (The Wire’s John Doman) who gives him assignments. 

Joe has a domestic life, of a sort: He cares for his elderly mother (Judith Roberts) in a house, the interior of which seems to have frozen in time four or five decades ago. When Joe comes home late, his mother is watching Hitchcock’s Psycho on the television, which is just what a middle-aged guy living with his mom doesn’t need.

Adapted from a 2013 novella by Jonathan Ames, You Were Never Really Here focuses on one particular assignment. Joe is paid to rescue Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), the waifish adolescent daughter of a New York Senator (Alex Manette), who has been sold into sex slavery in a Manhattan brothel catering to wealthy pedophiles.

Hammer and duct tape in hand, Joe heads out to sort things out, and soon we see him, via blurry grey images on security cameras, knocking out bad guys, floor to floor, like the Super Mario video game. Though the rescue is business as usual, the aftermath is complicated — chasing a thick vein of rot that runs from the governor’s mansion to the brutal local cops. Joe loses Nina again and sets out to get her back.

Many elements in You Were Never Really Here feel consciously familiar. There are enough echoes of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver to consider this as a kind of cinematic remix. For good measure, echoes of a David Lynch funeral parlour creepiness in scenes of hallways and over-padded rooms, accompanied by sickly sweet pop music.

Only when you look away from the action to the periphery that You Were Never Really Here becomes a real Lynn Ramsey movie, which is to say, an exploration of a traumatized mental state. The effect is condensed and rigorously crafted: Thomas Townend’s darting camera and Joe Bini’s time-shifting editing feel furtive, fragmentary and disembodied, grimly complemented by Jonny Greenwood’s superb nerve-jangling score.  

The most disquieting and vivid moments have little to do with action. At the film’s centre is a funeral scene in a river that has a potent mythic sense of transformation, though it’s not helpful to say too much. At the other end of the spectrum, there’s a wonderfully odd throwaway scene when Joe is asked by a trio of tourist girls to snap a picture of them. He takes the assignment seriously, carefully framing the shot with a camera phone. As we see through the camera, one girl’s face suddenly seems frozen in horror. Is this Joe’s skewed perspective? Or the girl’s sudden awareness of the aura of pain that surrounds him. 

In Ramsay’s short, impressive filmography, You Were Never Really Here isn’t her best work. The spine of the story seems comic-book preposterous and, outside of Joe, the characters seem more symbolic than real. The film can’t match her coming-of-age debut, Ratcatcher (1999) nor her masterly study of grief, Morvern Callar (2002), though it’s much better than her last film, the schematic evil teen drama, We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011). In its favour, it's strikingly well-crafted and a return to her singular strength as a filmmaker, which is a radical empathy for damaged, vulnerable characters, even the ones who use a ball-peen hammer for therapy.

You Were Never Really Here. Directed and written by Lynne Ramsay, adapted from the novel by Jonathan Ames. Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Ekaterina Samsonov, and Judith Roberts. Opens April 13th at Toronto’s (Cineplex Varsity), expanding in other markets throughout the month of April.