You Were Never Really Here is new film from the Scottish director Lynne Ramsey, whose last film seven years ago was We Need To Talk About Kevin. That last film had some of the worst first-year film student symbolism ever seen on screen. Ramsey walked off the set of a Western she was working on, Jane Got a Gun, the day before shooting was supposed to begin. This left a lot of people thinking that she might not have a career, as that’s something you just don’t do. Then she was involved with a science-fiction version of Moby Dick, which also didn’t come to fruition. But finally she got together with Amazon, FilmFour and some French producers, and began working a film based on a very short novella by Jonathan Ames. Ames is probably best known for his excellent television show, Bored to Death.
It has some similarities to the film Drive, also based on a novella. As with Drive, most of the backstory present in the novella has disappeared. Joaquin Phoenix plays a deeply troubled hired gun, a Gulf War vet who has been hired by a politician to rescue his 13-year-old daughter, who has been forced into child prostitution. Nothing about the job turns out to be as straightforward as it seems.
It’s a straight-ahead noir thriller that’s more of a character study of Phoenix’s character, who has suicidal fantasies throughout the film. It most certainly has shades of Taxi Driver but the protagonist is even more internalised and lacks the strong ensemble cast of that film. Phoenix is arguably the best actor of his generation at this point—he hasn’t done a bad movie in something like a decade at this point. Phoenix is gruff, heavy and fits the role, in a story that also includes a fair amount of dark, twisted humour. Ekaterina Samsonov (also recently seen in Wonderstruck) plays the victim, and is perfect in the role.
You Were Never Really Here is 85 minutes without the credits, a fat-free trajectory that is more of a psychological thriller than an action film. Working on a tight budget, the filmmaker uses creative means to telegraph action that would cost too much to choreograph. It’s a film that almost requires two viewings, because so much is going on in the background. It’s very well-shot, with no first-year-film-student symbolism to mar the effect. Johnny Greenwood, the guitarist in Radiohead, contributes an excellent score (he has worked with both Phoenix and Ramsey previously). It adds to the strong atmosphere of the film, as a good score should. It’s a film which won’t leave you well after the final sequence in a diner.
The bare-bones disc only includes a short trailer-like clip of Ramsey talking about how the book inspired her to make the film.