It’s only April, but you might not see a better film this year than Lynne Ramsay’s electrifying experiment with narrative form, You Were Never Really Here, the 48-year-old’s fourth in nearly two decades. Ramsay may not be as prolific as most of her peers, but between 1999’s Ratcatcher, 2002’s Morvern Callar, 2011’s We Need to Talk About Kevin and this latest triumph—an ambitiously fragmented adaptation of Jonathan Ames’ novella about a former FBI agent and Marine—the Glasgow-born writer/director never misses.
If suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder is anything like the disorienting flashes of sound and image that have been linked together with off-putting electronic music and atonal string cues, it’s a nightmare best not experienced personally. But in Ramsay’s hands, it’s impossible to avert your eyes and ears from the PTSD-driven horrors.
Playing a role for which he was awarded Best Actor at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, Joaquin Phoenix stars as Joe, a puzzle of a man we begin with precious little information about. But by the end of this tale’s taut 90 minutes, you might wish you knew less, even as some pieces still remain missing from the lonely, haunting portrait of an Iraq war veteran who now rescues teenage women in trouble. The three-time Oscar nominee has proven to be a real chameleon over the years and, under Ramsay’s guidance, he’s taken on a frightening new shape, bulking up with misshapen muscle, a drinker’s belly and a bushy graying beard that’s nearly as unkempt as the one he sported in director Casey Affleck’s I’m Still Here (2010).
“I hear you can be brutal,” says Albert Votto (We Need to Talk About Kevin’s Alex Manette), a slick senator who’s hired the largely non-verbal Joe to retrieve his daughter Nina (newcomer Ekaterina Samsonov), a 13-year-old who’s been kidnapped and forced into sexual slavery. He’s heard correctly. Armed with little more than a hammer, Phoenix’s mercenary is a quiet pit bull suspended between life and death. With little to lose, Joe wouldn’t think twice about taking his own empty life were it not for his dementia-stricken mother (Orange Is the New Black’s Judith Roberts) he looks after in his childhood home. A violent man who suffered abuse at the hands of his long-dead father, he’s a Lazarus figure whose aimless existence is given new purpose after his rescue effort doesn’t go as planned. As bodies begin piling up, he’s determined to finish the job that’s gone south.
Obviously, Ramsay’s grim, seedy nightmare noir won’t be for everyone. Although much of the violence is implied, there’s something viscerally unsettling about the sight of a raised hammer, its claw end about to shatter human flesh and bone. Forced to cut 17 pages from her script because of costs and a 29-day shooting schedule spread across 70 well-utilized locations throughout New York, Ramsay omits the handholding exposition and tidy resolutions that less adventurous viewers desire, putting the onus on us to piece together the conspiracy that’s unfolding through flashes of Joe’s tangled memories. But in the end, we’re no less in the dark than Joe is—and ultimately, it doesn’t really matter, since Ramsay’s command of craft, disarming flashes of humor and sense of style infuse her man-on-a-mission mashup of John Boorman’s Point Blank (1967) and Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) with a poetic grace that few artists achieve.
The contributions of three key collaborators, who previously worked with Ramsay on We Need To Talk About Kevin, also can’t be overstated: sound designer Paul Davies, editor Joe Bini and especially composer Jonny Greenwood. Working almost exclusively with Paul Thomas Anderson and now Ramsay, the lead guitarist and keyboard player for Radiohead has earned his place as an indispensable component of those artists’ films, establishing himself as one of the pre-eminent musicians working in movies. But a great score can only do so much if it’s in support of less ambitious filmmaking—and that’s certainly not the case here.
Take the sequence when Joe enters a three-story brownstone in midtown Manhattan to liberate the emotionally comatose young girl from her captors in the brothel that serves as their sick playground. Like a wrecking ball, he bounds from room to room, using the element of surprise—and his hammer—to crush all that stands in his way. Captured almost entirely from a series of security cameras, Ramsay jumps from one static angle to another, cutting from Joe’s raised arm to an empty frame, then eventually back to the results of his rampage. And then quite unexpectedly, she ends on a grace note of tenderness, as this man who’s haunted by those he was unable to help in his past is briefly redeemed by the compassion he’s able to show in the present. ◆
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Dante Pereira-Olson, Larry Canady, Vinicius Damasceno, Neo Randall, Judith Roberts, Frank Pando, John Doman, Edward Latham, Alex Manette, Claire Hsu, Denis Ozer, Tia-Sophia Bush, Lucy Lan Lao, Annie Mac-Yang, Lilian Tsang, Mengqi He, Rose De Vera, Tian-Lan Chaudhry, Ryan Martin Brown, Ace Ramsay,Ekaterina Samsonov, Silvia Pena, Jason Babinsky, Jonathan Wilde, Ronan Summers, Kate Easton, Scott Price, Novella Nelson, Madison Arnold, Leigh Dunham and Alessandro Nivola. Written by Lynne Ramsay, based on the book by Jonathan Ames. Directed by Ramsay. At Boston Common, Coolidge Corner and Kendall Square.