In You Were Never Really Here, Joaquin Phoenix goes around puncturing holes in people’s skulls with a ball-peen hammer. Watching Lynne Ramsay’s new film is a surprisingly close approximation to what that must feel like — in the best possible way. Ramsay has crammed her film with brutal images and jarring sounds designed to crash against us. The effect is often frightening and traumatizing, but she provides enough moments of sublime grace between visual assaults to keep us from looking away.
From its opening seconds, You Were Never Really Here comes at us as a burst of pure sensation. Through fragmentary shots we come to learn that Joe (a masterful performance by Joaquin Phoenix) is a hunter of lost children. He works on the outskirts of a clandestine network to rescue kids (often young girls) who have been kidnapped, many of whom have presumably been sold into sex slavery.
Everything about Joe’s physical and mental state screams trauma. His body is covered in gnarly scars of various vintages, but what runs through his mind is even more frightening — he’s constantly at the mercy of intrusive flashbacks, memories of death, destruction, and empty-eyed children he was too late to save. Ramsay gives us a glimpse of these memories through chopped up bits of flashback. At first it seems like more will be revealed over time until the memories are clear, a kind of Snowden flashback from Catch-22, but that moment of clarity is withheld. Joe only experiences his memories as bursts of anger and sadness, and therefore so do we.
Joe’s overwhelming feelings also include bouts of suicidal thoughts and half-hearted attempts. He often tries to asphyxiate himself with a plastic bag, which is played for comedic affect when his elderly mother (Judith Roberts), whom Joe dotes on her when he’s not out of town on business, interrupts him with her nagging demands.
After returning to New York from a job in Cincinnati, Joe meets with his handler, John (The Wire’s John Doman) for his next assignment: a state senator’s missing daughter (Ekaterina Samsonov), who is being held in a brothel of sorts for underage girls. In preparation for the rescue, Joe visits his armory — in this case a hardware store. His only real supplies are a roll of duct tape and a new ball-peen hammer. His assaults are necessarily violent, but Ramsay chooses to stay removed from the gore; rather than tightly choreographed fight scenes, she shows attacks through grainy black and white security cam footage. When Ramsay does show blood and gore onscreen, it’s mostly after the fact, a reminder of the terrible irreversibility of violence.
You Were Never Really Here fits solidly into the mold of a neo-noir film, with its pitch black mood and shocking violence. Classic noir films also tend to have a strain of paranoia that runs through them, inspired by the postwar atmosphere and the Red Scare. Philip Marlowe tended to think he had as much of a handle as Joe does on the real mystery — until everything was turned upside down. There’s a similar kind of paranoid reversal in Ramsay’s film after Joe suddenly finds himself in the midst of a conspiracy that involves New York’s political elite.
In order to make the audience feel as unmoored as Joe, Ramsay relies on a brutal sound mix and jarring editing, in addition to the aforementioned flashbacks. Editor Joe Bini and sound designer Paul Davies deserve enormous praise for the aural film they’ve created. Their work gets into Joe’s head and his struggles with mental illness. Background chatter is turned up so that it intrudes on what’s happening in the foreground, just as Joe isn’t able to separate those voices from what’s right in front of his face. Sirens and traffic sounds are sometimes turned up to dizzying levels, and the score from Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood fits perfectly against this backdrop. Rather than the lush strings of his brilliant work on Phantom Thread, Greenwood instead opts for harsher, dissonant strings that hearken back to his groundbreaking music for There Will Be Blood. He has also departed from his usual film music formula with some cues for electric guitar, electronics, and synthesizers; his pulsing synth-based tracks recall the best 1980s thrillers. Greenwood has long been a great writer for the piano, but here he has prepared it a la John Cage, which turns the instrument into a percussive force.
When an unfinished cut of You Were Never Really Here premiered at Cannes, Ramsay won an award for the screenplay, although that should be read more as consolation for the directing prize — there’s very little dialogue in the film, and it occasionally falls into obvious neo-noir territory. However, when it comes to the directing, Ramsay’s accomplishments are stunning. She finds a kind of grungy beauty in New York that has rarely been seen since Martin Scorsese’s early masterpieces. The use of light, thanks to her collaboration with cinematographer Thomas Townend, is arresting, and would almost benefit from being watched once without the sound (except that this movie’s sound is so essential). It recalls the loving attention Michael Mann‘s great crime films pay to neon light.
Of course, this movie wouldn’t exist without Phoenix’s performance. Instead of aiming for the standard action-thriller six pack look, he opts for pure, hulking mass. Phoenix has transformed his body into a weapon of blunt force trauma, much like the hammer he carries. Few actors can reveal as much about their characters through purely visual means as Phoenix can, which is essential with Ramsay’s oblique screenplay. It’s the closest his work has come to being touched by madness since his turn as a traumatized former sailor in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master (2012).
You Were Never Really Here is a grim, occasionally exhausting work of art. Ramsay’s film is of a world gone mad, as well as a man living in it doing everything he can to cling to sanity, yet mostly just finding pain. We watch him taking his lonely walk down these mean streets. Hopefully he goes at least a little farther.