You Were Never Really Here

During 2018 I’d kept hearing positive word about You Were Never Really Here, the new film from Lynne Ramsay (written & directed by her based on a novel by Jonathan Ames), but I kept missing the opportunity to watch it.

Luckily for me, the Pálás Cinema in Galway decided to show it again just before the end of the year, so I got to enjoy this cinematic masterpiece of lean, evocative storytelling.

(Warning: the trailer indicates much of the action, and there are spoilers in the text ahead also.)

I’m a self-confessed horror fan so people often assume I’m seeing the film for the gore, violence, or jump scares, when they are usually the scenes that I find the most uninteresting. This is because they are the parts that are the most prone to formula. You can construct gritty horror quite easily: show life at its visceral worst; wallow in the muck of human entrails; observe the pain wash over the victim’s faces.

Revulsion is easy to conjure in your viewers. What’s more difficult is to evoke unease and dread and slowly abrade the assumptions of the audience to lead them to an unexpected place of raw emotional truth.

You Were Never Really Here is sold as a straight-up revenge flick: a brutal man is hired to recover a trafficked girl and bad things ensue. The formula of the man who considers himself irredeemable looking for salvation by rescuing a vulnerable person is well established in cinema, and the pairing of a man with a frail girl is a well-trodden path.

But all situations can take on a different tenor once a number of details are skewed or distorted.

In You Were Never Really Here Joaquin Phoenix plays, Joe, a man without a last name, who rescues girls from terrible people for a hefty price tag. His mother is old and confused and he cares for her with the money he makes from his other life.

So far so familiar… yet from the opening minutes of the film Ramsay indicates we are in different territory. She does this through building up a multilayered visual narrative with precise framing, superb editing, and a disturbing and cacophonous soundscape. The dialogue is spare and scenes from Joe’s back story are interlaced occasionally and often jarringly. He’s a man who suffers from PTSD – we understand this because Ramsay makes us endure it too.

As the film progresses and events go increasingly out of control Ramsay is unafraid to stretch reality. For most people violent situations have consequences and our minds bend and twist to cope with the horrors we have witnessed.

There is a beautiful elegiac sequence in which Joe, determined to drown with the corpse of his mother, descends into the void of water, only to glimpse the girl he was sent to rescue (Nina Votto – Ekaterina Samsonov) drowning in the water also. He removes the stones from his pockets and emerges from the water with the deep-set determination to at least save her.

We are now primed to imagine a series of uber-violent sequences in which Joe teaches everyone a lesson and delivers Nina to safety.

But we are wrong-footed. Perhaps because she has been shown a different potential, Nina has rescued herself. Joe and Nina are faced with a future that is devoid of monsters. “It’s a beautiful day,” Nina says. They are bemused and uncertain.

How does one navigate such a world?

You Were Never Really Here tricks you into thinking you have witnessed many gruesome events. In fact the terrible deeds are hinted at, shown in aftermath, or simply anticipated as Ramsay ratchets up your feelings of awful anticipation.

This is a film that recognises the glamour that cinematic violence can inspire in the audience. It resolutely sets a different course for itself. It tells us that horrific events are not attractive. They devastate us. We are forever affected but we are not necessarily broken.

We can emerge from it and imagine a different future.

Phoenix delivers an exceptional performance – the film hangs on his believability as a man capable of hurting people who also experiences deep hurt.

Watching You Were Never Really Here is a fine reminder of the potential of cinema to be an art form of the highest order.

This film deserves a spot as one the best films of this decade.