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You Were Never Really Here: ‘A Heightened Display of Provocation’

In Hollywood’s current climate, action films the likes of Taken and John Wick are a dime a dozen. On the surface, it’s easy to mistake Lynne Ramsay’s latest for another sub-standard shoot-em-up; but it’s so much more.

Channelling its inner-Taxi Driver more so than its WickYou Were Never Really Here is a “man on a mission” actioner with arthouse sensibilities; more man than mission, not too concerned with the antics of the criminals but, instead, focused on letting its audience peer into the crushed soul of a broken man. Our man in question is war-veteran and hammer-wielding hitman Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), who rescues young girls from sex traffickers and is notorious for the brutality he brings upon criminals. However, when one of these rescues goes awry, his already crumbling life begins to go askew.

Joe’s backstory is hazily pencilled in through vignettes: Ramsay lightly filing in some of the blanks but leaving most of the dots for the audience to connect themselves. For the most part, our protagonist remains a morally dubious blur: physically scarred and mentally tormented, intermittent flashes of his violent imagination and torn psyche inter-splice throughout the action, but the deep roots of his trauma are muddied. We’re aware that he was abused as a child, which perhaps had a hand in this, as well as a stint in some branch of the armed forces, but Ramsay is careful not to bog her film down with too much exposition. Joe remains so captivating because he is such a mystery.

You Were Never Really Here is thick with grief and ambiguity: Ramsay offers us an uncompromising, harrowing look into a man ravaged by his past; prompting a catalogue of destructive behaviour and tendencies to be unleashed upon those that echo his childhood. Despite remaining closed-off, he’s a riveting character to watch: the choice to keep the violence limited and the focus on emotional torment is one that keeps YWNRH feeling fresh and visceral. Of course, saying Joaquin Phoenix is fantastic in the role is like saying water is wet – it’s a given. But the actor is quietly discomforting to watch: he disappears into the character, embodying Joe’s emotionally vacant shell through a very visual, subtle performance and an intimidating presence. His deep-rooted anguish and torment is evident – we can feel his pain through the performance. It’s work delivered with utter conviction, making us empathise with this character one second, but also wholly believe he can demolish people twice his size the next.

There’s perhaps an argument to be made that Martin Scorsese covered this material back in 1976 with Taxi Driver – the two films are awfully similar in their nature. Joe’s nightmarish visions can also, perhaps, become a little too jarring and convoluted when realised on-screen. But these are small issues, and the only real complaints I have with the film. Otherwise, Lynne Ramsay is four for four now, proving once again that she is one of the most talented living and breathing filmmakers out there – not to mention one of the most daring. You Were Never Really Here is the landmark of her career thus far: it’s esoteric in its nature, going to some truly dark depths. But it’s a beautiful triumph. Ramsay’s visual storytelling is masterful: the film is gorgeously shot, and permeated by yet another fantastic score from the sublime genius of Jonny Greenwood – personally, my favourite of his to date. YWNRH is brutal and visceral, a heightened display of provocation from a tour-de-force trio of unstoppable talent: Phoenix, Ramsay, and Greenwood. Yet, the film remains hauntingly mesmerising – the kind of quietly disquieting and powerful work that will linger with you for some time after the credits have rolled.

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Awais Irfan