You Were Never Really Here is definitely the one that got away. Despite having received a seven-minute standing ovation at Cannes, together with awards for Best Actor and Best Screenplay, the films early release time in the cinematic cycle of 2018 may have worked against it as we crawl ever closer to the awards season.
Starring a career-defining performance by Joaquin Phoenix, You Were Never Really Here is brutal and uncompromising. The film follows Joe (Phoenix), a lone enforcer with a hammer as his weapon of choice. Phoenix plays the beautifully complex main character, Joe. Joe’s dark backstory of abuse and PTSD that is hinted on in the films short, sharp flashbacks, underpinned by his repeated suicidal inclinations. However, Joe also shows great tenderness and protectiveness in the way that he cares for his elderly mother and later female lead, Nina. When he is asked to take on the job of ‘discreetly’ rescuing a senator’s 13-year-old daughter, who has been kidnapped and held by a child abuse ring, he takes the job at face value. Little does he realise the sewer of high-level institutionalised corruption that lies behind it.
The film’s writer and director Lynne Ramsay is well-known for her short but critically acclaimed back catalogue (including Morvern Callar and We Need to Talk About Kevin). Ramsay commands great respect internationally for the quality of her films, for her principled approach to her craft, and for her refusal to compromise. She was replaced by Peter Jackson on The Lovely Bones in 2004 because she fundamentally disagreed with the investors’ demands that the film should directly mirror the book, and she also pulled out of Jane Got a Gun in 2013 due to her concern that commercial concerns – such as a demand for a happy ending – would compromise her integrity as a director.
Ramsay’s films are known for being short on dialogue and big on image. Underpinned by outstanding and usually career-making performances, her ability to weave music and sound into the DNA of her films, combined with her unwareving directorial vision, makes for some truly unique cinematic experiences. Her reccuring musical score partner Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead (renowned for his film scores including the award-winning There Will Be Blood) was the obvious choice to score You Were Never Really Here. Similar to his work on Lynne’s earlier movie We Need To Talk About Kevin, Greenwood’s ethereal score helps to provide a unique aural experience that matches the distinctice tone of the film.
Visually, the movie’s violence (which could have been crass or cartoonish in the hands of another director) is represented in a way that is indirect, but still very powerful. The use of deflecting the scene through security camera footage, reflections or omitting the violent act and seeing only the outcome, in retrospect gives the violence an almost dream-like quality. What one director would make vulgar, Ramsay makes into art.
In terms of performance, Joaquin Phoenix’s performance as Joe is mesmerizing. Phoenix seems almost born to portray this odd multi-dimensional man with incredible depths, violence, compassion and most of all, unbelievable suffering. The tension that is created throughout the film is unrelenting and unnerving, and Phoenix completely owns the screen from the opening shot to the credits. His performance is truly career-defining for an actor who many may have written off as ‘old news’.
At a time when we hear frustration about the poor representation of female directors, it is a tragedy that a film like this, by a woman who is a master of her craft, should be overlooked by the Golden Globes (and most likely the Oscars too). Even in her own home country, the film has only been nominated for the Outstanding British Film award at the forthcoming BAFTAs, missing out on the prestigious Best Film. Similarly, Joaquin Phoenix’s defining performance in You Were Never Really Here is likely to be similarly snubbed in the face of upcoming bigger budget and more commercially successful films.
Career-defining performance by Joaquin Phoenix
Masterfully directed and scored
Lack of awards recognition
If I could persuade you to see just one film this year, I would recommend You Were Never Really Here and remind yourself of just how powerful and creative cinema can be.