You Were Never Really Here

Morvern Callar director Lynne Ramsay knocks it out of the park again with this fierce hitman thriller starring Joaquin Phoenix, which has echoes of Taxi Driver

Film Review by Joseph Walsh | 05 Mar 2018
Film title: You Were Never Really Here
Director: Lynne Ramsay
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Alessandro Nivola, Ekaterina Samsonov, Judith Roberts, Alex Manette
Release date: 9 Mar
Certificate: 15

Lynne Ramsay’s blistering adaptation of Jonathan Ames' novel was an eleventh-hour addition to this year’s Cannes Film Festival, and rumours were rampant regarding how close to its premiere this cut was completed. Coming in at just 88 minutes and with no credits, it's believed that this isn’t the finished product, but that doesn't seem to have hampered the film's power. What did screen was a raw, heart-pounding feature reminiscent of Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, and it's even more daring than the Scottish director’s previous feature, We Need To Talk About Kevin.

We first meet Joe – played by Joaquin Phoenix, who’s sporting a shaggy, greying beard – with his head trapped in a polythene bag. It rises and falls, his eyes wild with fear. Near him is a bloodied hammer. You don’t know why this has happened, but you know it wasn’t good.

He tears the bag from his head, tidies the hotel room, zips up his hoodie and returns to his home in Queens where he lives with his senile mother (Judith Roberts). It is a vague, unsettling opening, causing you to question every detail.

In flashback get glimpses of Joe’s punishing childhood, and of the horrors he witnessed while at war. He flinches as they flood his mind, triggering roars of pain with which he fuels his bloody work.

Joe is a hitman who specialises in the rescue of children trapped in sex rings. He operates under the radar, working for private clients, with jobs set up for him by his fixer, John (John Doman). He’s a hulking, intimidating presence, and his face is often obscured by a hood as he stalks down the street.

There are moments of savagery in You Were Never Really Here, but Ramsay uses the violence sparingly. When it does occur, it is visceral and painful to watch; Joe's weapon of choice is a hammer.

When Joe is tasked with rescuing a senator’s daughter, Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), Ramsay shows us Joe at work via a CCTV feed. It’s just one of a variety of ways in which she avoids treading into the clichés found in revenge thrillers.

Both the sound design and Jonny Greenwood’s score (this is one of the Radiohead guitarist's finest efforts) help intensify Ramsay’s visuals. She also makes good use of a few classic pop tunes that blare out from radios, including a very memorable use of Charlene's I’ve Never Been to Me.

You Were Never Really Here is a brutal, punishing watch, but every minute is a masterclass in filmmaking. It’s like a one-inch-punch to the gut, winding you from the start and giving you no respite. This exquisite examination of suffering will leave you staggering from the cinema.

You Were Never Really Here had its world premiere at Cannes film festival – for more Cannes coverage, click here – and is released in the UK 9 Mar by StudioCanal

Follow Joseph Walsh on Twitter at @JosephDAWalsh