“Who knew that the work of a hitman could be such an ethereal experience?” – Wayward Wolf.
Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here (YWNRH from hereon in), is a remarkable film based upon the Jonathan Ames book of the same name, chronicling the exploits of hired hitman, Joe (Joaquin Phoenix).
Through many a sequence of flashbacks we build up a picture of the tormented mind of this rather monosyllabic and withdrawn character. Be it through an upbringing of family abuse and violence or from the harrowing times that he spent in the military, Joe is clearly a man haunted by his past.
Back on Civvy Street, he takes care of his dementia-afflicted mother with the earnings from his work as ‘hired muscle’. On the instruction of those that require his services – frequently high profile or influential people – he is tasked with tracking down and rescuing missing girls from the unfortunate circumstances into which they have either been forced, or somehow now find themselves.
But the hiring of Joe’s ‘talents’ is very much a last resort.
Though apparently well paid for his services, he seems hell-bent on some sort of personal crusade to clean up the wrong-doings of society. Hammer in hand, his methods are crude and frequently brutal, but never less than effective.
YWNRH is a film that is at once both violent and beautiful, yet these two apparently disparate states somehow sit together well here, interwoven into one innovative and dream-like whole.
Who knew that the work of a hitman could be such an ethereal experience?
Stylistically speaking at least, YWNRH is a little reminiscent of Joseph Bull and Luke Seomore’s under-rated 2014 offering, Blood Cells, but it’s the over-riding parallels with Taxi Driver that are inescapable here. That said, never does Ramsay’s film ever feel derivative or in any way indebted to Martin Scorcese’s seminal 1970’s classic. A familiar narrative this may well be, but in Ramsay’s hands it feels fresh and original.
Whether it’s through capturing scenes of violence via the restricted view of an in-house CCTV security system, or deliberate directorial decisions to ignore an actual act of brutality in favour of immediately cutting to its blood-drenched aftermath instead, YWNRH feels like innovative, impactful film-making. And it’s Ramsay’s ability to switch so effectively between scenes of thought-provoking subtlety and pronounced graphic violence – and at times combining them both together – that makes the piece so genuinely affecting.
Joaquin Phoenix is perfectly cast as Ramsay’s scar-riddled brooding anti-hero. A man whose propensity for explosive violence would seem to be as much a cathartic process in reaction to the madness that plagues his mind, as it is a gut reaction to the appalling immoral injustices that he encounters regularly through his work.
If there has to be a slight criticism, it’s Phoenix’s at times almost unintelligible delivery given his character’s tendency to mumble his way through most scenes. Needless to say, taking a bullet to his cheek/mouth during one particular ‘work-related’ scuffle does little to alleviate this particular enunciation issue. It does however make one wonder whether anything crucial, narratively-speaking, gets missed during Joe’s occasional verbal exchanges. But this is but a minor gripe, and it’s very much the visual and the visceral that are King here.
Finally, a brief word for the man of the moment – sonically-speaking at least – Jonny Greenwood, who yet again nails his brief with a menacing and at times challenging soundtrack that on one level brings to mind some of the best of Cliff Martinez’s pounding analogue synth-driven work that so brilliantly accompanies the films of Danish Director, Nicolas Winding Refn.
Above everything, YWNRH is highly memorable cinema with Phoenix’s performance in particular searing itself indelibly into our minds, unlikely to be forgotten in any sort of hurry.
Fine, fine work from the Director of We Need to Talk About Kevin and The Ratcatcher. But that was only to be expected.