Lynne Ramsay’s film adaptation spurred writer Jonathan Ames to develop a sequel to his 2013 novel of the same name. (Supplied: Umbrella Entertainment)
You could describe You Were Never Really Here as a hitman thriller, but it doesn’t quite do justice to the bedazzling ways that Scottish director Lynne Ramsay (We Need to Talk About Kevin; Morvern Callar) takes Jonathan Ames’s novel and transforms it into a tender, fragmented nightmare.
The story of a returned soldier and ex-FBI agent who rescues sex slaves, it’s much more a rumination on alienation than a double-barrelled joy ride of blood lust and revenge.
A grizzly, fleshy Joaquin Phoenix plays the vigilante known simply as Joe. Sporting a bushy steel-wool beard and pale scars that stretch across his back like slugs, he looks far from peak physical condition, but like an old footballer who hasn’t lost his touch, his killing skills are instinctive.
Multiple flashbacks reveal the violence suffered and afflicted by Joaquin Phoenix’s character Joe over the course of his life. (Supplied: Umbrella Entertainment)
If Joe is a cross between Travis Bickle and Dirty Harry, Ramsay’s depiction doesn’t revel in any kind of certitude or vindication. When Joe is approached by a politician whose young daughter Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov) is being held in a city brothel, the prospect of bad guys getting their comeuppance is eclipsed by a more interior trajectory.
Joe exists in a kind of frazzled state of disconnectedness with the world — numb and alienated — a performance register that Phoenix, who won best actor at Cannes, evokes with effortless nuance, and Ramsay echoes with studied incongruity.
A brief scene on a busy street when a group of giggling girls ask him to take their photo becomes a brush with anxiety, as Ramsay cuts to extreme close ups of the girl’s faces and puts a sinister, high pitched note over a lonely shot of Joe holding the smart phone, appearing suddenly vulnerable and alone amid the traffic.
Phoenix’s PTSD-suffering war veteran Joe is most at peace when caring for his dementia-suffering mother (portrayed by actor Judith Roberts). (Supplied: Umbrella Entertainment)
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The source of his anguish is not straightforward. There are flashes of horror from the battlefield, but there are even more disturbing glimpses from his childhood, cowering from a violent father and even attempting suicide — a visual motif that recurs in the film.
Joe only seems normal in the domestic everyday moments he shares with his elderly mother (Judith Roberts) in their New York home, at one point playfully chiding her for the expired cream cheese she’s left in the fridge.
Ramsay won Best Screenplay and Phoenix won Best Actor at Cannes Film Festival in 2017. (Supplied: Umbrella Entertainment)
But it’s his freelance job that defines and entraps him. The automatic way he goes about a mission — methodically staking out the location, assembling his hitman arsenal from hardware store essentials like gaffer tape and a hammer (his weapon of choice, engraved with the words “Made in the USA”) — seems like a therapeutic ritual.
But the maiming and killing is neither cathartic nor energising. Joe is a sick man, and it’s only when an unexpected disaster derails his mission to rescue Nina that any kind of personal breakthrough — however slight — seems possible.
Cinematographer Tom Townend says that French photographer Antoine d’Agata’s work was a visual reference for director Lynne Ramsay. (Supplied: Umbrella Entertainment)
This is Ramsay’s fourth film, and its themes of personal trauma and grief are familiar terrain. Stylistically she works like an expressionist, manipulating sound and image to evoke the emotional interior of her characters.
The way she places people at the edge of frame, or in shadow, or trapped inside the geometric lines of car windows, doorways and corridors, creates a vaguely oppressive force that underpins the film. Equally important is the soundtrack, with its mash of TV white noise and oldies radio, bleeding in and out of Johnny Greenwood’s minimal synthesiser beds and discordant orchestra.
Ames says the novel was written during a difficult period of his life and that Joe’s interior landscape resembled his struggles and state of mind at the time. (Supplied: Umbrella Entertainment)
At times, admittedly, her audacity becomes precocious, overheated. A close up of Joe’s fingers squashing a green jellybean during a meeting suggests — I guess — his askew world view. In another scene, a shot of him carrying a corpse into a lake wearing a full suit signals despair, but also smacks of the kind of portentous cliché that small screen directors use when they want their work to scream “prestige TV”.
The film’s greatness lies in Ramsay’s more subtle, subliminal ploys of framing and sound design. Her portrayal of violence and alienation through the eyes of a damaged man — like a reflection of the world in a broken mirror — is best when it creeps up on you.