Lynne Ramsay's "You Were Never Really Here" Is Nearly A Knockout

In 2011, writer-director Lynne Ramsay drew a spirit-breaking sketch of a mother (Tilda Swinton) suffering in the wake of a son’s atrocities. Mirroring the psyche of a parent whose child committed a school massacre, “We Need To Talk About Kevin” doled out its psychological flagellations in fragments, walking us down innumerable dimly lit pathways in fits and starts.

Ramsay’s follow-up, Joaquin Phoenix-starrer “You Were Never Really Here,” is every bit as bleak – a horror show in its own right – but incredibly finds its infernal power in an entirely different trajectory.

Based on Jonathan Ames’ novel of the same name, the NYC-set pic tells the tale of a haggard PTSD-suffering veteran and former law enforcement officer named Joe (Phoenix) whose middle age has found him a new vocation. He’s become a contract killer, a veritable ghost, hired to break up child sex trafficking rings and brutalize those responsible. Although handy with a gun, his weapon of choice is a 16 oz. ball pein hammer, a darkly theatrical gesture that evinces his station as a magician of wet work.

As Joe amusingly pops jelly beans like pills (and soon enough, vice versa) in the office of his handler, Ramsay delineates her approach: this is a surprisingly straightforward film whose subject matter calls for nothing but a blunt force telling. Beautiful arthouse flourishes abound, but not for a moment does the 90-minute film fuck around.

Phoenix finds the right tilt on the material as always, splendidly underplaying a man for whom murder is meditation. Joe is never so good, never so at ease as when he’s bludgeoning someone, the act clearing his mind of so many ghastly memories. While Ramsay’s direction and script go straight for the jugular, Phoenix gives one of his warmer performances to date, an appropriately far cry from his career-defining turn as a different kind of disturbed veteran in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master.”

As writer-director and star shepherd us into the gloaming, Joe’s professional life and personal life (he lives with and cares for his frail mother, played by Judith Roberts) set off on a collision course. A senator’s 13-year-old daughter named Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov) has gone missing, and Joe is called on to rescue her. There are real thrills in both his methodology and the resulting explosions of violence, but the pic’s most compelling element is the parallelism between him and Nina; both of them unfairly corrupted, anesthetized to the moment, bonded by the sheer weight of their existence.

The machinations of the third act are less plausible than what came before, relieving some air from the movie’s balloon. But Ramsay conjures up a few hauntingly surreal visuals to keep us guessing as to what’s true and what isn’t. A sequence where Joe disposes of bodies in a lake is almost baptismal, providing the year-in-film’s most indelible imagery to date. The scene is further brought to life by a particularly stirring musical cue.

Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood follows his unforgettable “Phantom Thread” score with another stunner, swallowing us up like the cityscape-turned-hellscape enveloping Joe and Nina. It’s at once as ornate and immediate as anything the musician has done, functioning indispensably as the movie’s emotional framework. While Joe and Nina become increasingly cold and dispassionate out of pure survival instinct, Greenwood’s work expertly makes us feel on their behalf.

With a healthy dose of gallows humor, Ramsay wraps up her film with the kind of jolt that might be expected but not prepared for. It’s final: Joe and Nina’s only hope for the future is in each other, in this life or the next. Lynne Ramsay seems to know this kind of tragic figure better than most, transposing their suffering into something at once horrific and poetic. Such is the duality of human existence, wrapped up here in a celluloid bow.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Good)

Release Date: April 6, 2018 (Limited)
Studio: Amazon Studios
Director: Lynne Ramsay
Screenwriter: Lynne Ramsay
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Judith Roberts, Ekaterina Samsonov, John Doman, Alex Manettev, Dante Pereira-Olsen, Alessandro Nivola
MPAA Rating: R (for strong violence, disturbing and grisly images, language, and brief nudity)