You Were Never Really Here review: Joaquin Phoenix stars in instant cult classic | Films | Entertainment


Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here is such a movie. This instant cult classic, a hit at last year’s Cannes, features a career-best Joaquin Phoenix as a troubled hitman tasked with rescuing a senator’s daughter (Ekaterina Samsonov) from a New York paedophile ring.

It’s a brutal and at times gruesome film but it’s impossible to look away. Phoenix’s jittery performance chimes beautifully with Jonny Greenwood’s unnerving score, Thomas Townsend’s astonishing cinematography and Joe Bini’s boundary-pushing editing.

The pulpy plot, which Glasgow-born Ramsay (most famous for We Need to Talk About Kevin) has taken from Jonathan Ames’s short novel, has led to early and perhaps ironic comparisons with Liam Neeson’s Taken.

Both feature ex-military men battling kidnappers, but there are no bloodless battles with wonky-shooting goons here. Joe’s weapon of choice is a hammer and his “very particular set of skills” includes self-loathing, self asphyxiation and an almost suicidal urge to put himself in danger. 

Ramsay tells her story with great economy (an under-rated, and increasingly rare talent) but the plot isn’t the engine of this absorbing film.

The script bravely opens up a space between us and Joe, daring us to empathise and forcing us to work out his backstory for ourselves.

Touching glimpses of him caring for his elderly mother show a compassionate man and a dutiful son but violence is always bubbling beneath the surface.

As he gets entangled in a web of corruption, almost hallucinatory flashbacks keep crashing in, taking us to a military compound in the Middle East, a lorry strewn with corpses and a wardrobe where a boy is suffocating himself with a plastic bag.

We’ve never seen action sequences like these either. In one astonishing scene he lays on the floor with a felled victim. As the goon’s life ebbs away, they hold hands and sing along to a pop song on the radio.

The scene where he rescues the girl is just as surprising. In a different kind of film this is where most of the budget would be spent.

But Ramsay spends more time on Joe’s mental preparations for the raid than the raid itself. When Joe finds the hideout, he simply strides through the front door clutching his hammer.

Then Ramsay perversely switches to CCTV, cutting between cameras as he bludgeons the guards to death.

I know how they felt. This dense and brutally beautiful film hammered away at my senses from the start.

When it bows out after a fat-free 85 minutes you may want to stay in your seat, go over what you saw and wait for the next showing.

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