*** (out of 4)
As a filmmaker, Lynne Ramsay has never shied away from gruesome material. Her first two features, Ratcatcher and Morvern Callar, respectively depicted garbage-infested slums and the aftermath of a suicide. Seven years ago, moreover, she achieved instant notoriety with We Need to Talk About Kevin, a film about a mother whose son kills several classmates at school. Now, in You Were Never Really Here, Ramsay has decided to tell the story of Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) – a lonely, hammer-wielding hitman who gets hired to rescue a 14-year-old girl named Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov) from an underage prostitution ring.
On a purely sensorial level, You Were is easily one of the best things you’ll see in theaters this year. Ramsay has always been a consummate stylist – and throughout You Were, she effectively uses a variety of techniques to immerse us in Joe’s version of reality. The camera’s penchant for disorienting close-ups, for instance, directly speaks to Joe’s warped perception of the outside world. Jonny Greenwood’s dissonant, pulsating soundtrack ably reflects the violent ups and downs in Joe’s emotional state. And the disjointed editing – flashbacks to Joe’s childhood abruptly pop up throughout the film – provides an apt visual testament to the intractability of Joe’s various traumas (more on those below).
In addition to providing a compelling portrait of its protagonist’s inner psychology, You Were should also be commended for the way it depicts violence. As you might imagine, Joe fights a lot of people over the course of the movie. But whereas most directors would focus in on these confrontations (and in doing so indirectly glorify the violence said confrontations entail), Ramsay does the exact opposite. She likes to cut to still “aftermath shots” of Joe’s victims lying splayed on the ground – and throughout the film, she invariably sets these chilling images to weirdly upbeat doo-wop music. Such moments not only illustrate the way in which Joe has become a numb, violence-dispensing machine; in a powerful ending sequence, Ramsay expertly deploys this aftermath approach to suggest that our society as a whole is just as desensitized to violence as he.
The problems with You Were, then, have nothing to do with its style; rather, they stem from its unexpectedly lackluster narrative. Ramsay’s previous films, after all, feature characters and worlds that are primarily defined by their provocative moral complexity. In Ratcatcher, for example, the main character is a 12-year-old boy who drowns a playmate in a canal. After her boyfriend commits suicide, the eponymous protagonist of Morvern Callar deals with her grief by stealing his money and publishing his novel under her name. And in We Need to Talk About Kevin, Ramsay suggests that Eva bears indirect responsibility for Kevin’s horrific actions, even as these actions leave Eva completely devastated.
In contrast to all this, Joe as a character is simply too…good. As violent and barbaric as he can be, Ramsay clearly indicates that his personality is merely the product of external circumstances – namely, his upbringing under an abusive father and his combat experience in Iraq. The simplifying generosity underlying this conception of Joe, furthermore, is only accentuated by Ramsay’s caricatural depiction of the world around him. Traditional authorities (e.g. the police, the politician who hires Joe to track Nina down) are all corrupt; young girls like Nina are fonts of innocence; and Joe, lo and behold, is a white knight who can obtain a quasi-religious form of redemption by rescuing the latter from the former. Throughout You Were, in short, the nuances of Ramsay’s earlier works give way to a straightforward morality tale that feels right out of Gran Torino. And while that certainly makes for a more uplifting watch, it also makes the film much less interesting on an intellectual level.
Still, the good news for Ramsay is that her actors have more than enough talent to make up for her blunders. Samsonov, for one, gives a painfully resonant portrayal of a child who’s lost whatever capacity she once had for emotional expression. And as anyone who’s seen his work in The Master and Her won’t be surprised to hear, Phoenix proves absolutely exceptional. Without ever uttering more than perhaps six intelligible words at a time, he skillfully straddles the seeming contradictions between his character’s outward ferocity and inner vulnerability; the portrait he offers of inescapable loneliness carries a quasi-animalistic fervor that’ll leave you simultaneously frightened and moved. Had Ramsay approached her material with the same care that Phoenix and Samsonov put towards their own, You Were could’ve been a true masterpiece – not the good but disappointing movie it actually is.
You Were Never Really Here (2017)
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Ekaterina Samsonov, Alex Manette, John Doman, Judith Roberts
Running Time: 89 minutes
MPAA Rating: R, “for strong violence, disturbing and grisly images, language, and brief nudity.”
Produced by: Lynne Ramsay, Rosa Attab, Pascal Caucheteux, James Wilson
Written and Directed by: Lynne Ramsay. Based on Jonathan Ames’ novel of the same name.
 This idea, of course, is reinforced by the film’s images: Joe is frequently depicted as a dark, hooded figure standing under or in front of some source of white light.