You Were Never Really Here: Gripping, dark and challenging
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You Were Never Really Here: Gripping, dark and challenging

You Were Never Really Here

89 minutes, rated MA

Joaquin Phoenix as Joe and Ekaterina Samsonov, who has been kidnapped,  in You Were Never Really Here.

Joaquin Phoenix as Joe and Ekaterina Samsonov, who has been kidnapped, in You Were Never Really Here.

★★★★

Though she's made just four feature films in a career spanning more than two decades, the Scottish director Lynne Ramsay has established herself as one of the more genuinely experimental figures in English-language narrative cinema. While her films have an immediate sensory impact, they're designed to spark questions rather than provide straightforward answers: in this, she stands comparison with French filmmakers such as Claire Denis, and with an earlier generation of British modernists such as John Boorman​ and Nicolas Roeg​.

Ramsay is also something of a specialist in the horrible, especially in her two most recent films, both literary adaptations set in America: We Need to Talk about Kevin and the new You Were Never Really Here, adapted from novels respectively by Lionel Shriver and Jonathan Ames. In each, the main narrative is broken up with brief visions of other scenes which might be occurring in the past or future, or in someone's mind: these hint at darker possibilities beneath already disturbing scenarios, forcing the viewer's imagination to travel to uncomfortable places on its own.

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It feels logical that Ramsay should team up with Joaquin Phoenix, an actor whose many gifts include his ability to make a virtue out of a total lack of charm. Phoenix is highly versatile, but he has a comfort zone, and Joe, the anti-hero of You Were Never Really Here, is squarely in the middle of it: bulky, shambling, half-hidden behind a bristly beard, alternating between sociopathic violence and awkward sensitivity. "They said you were brutal," a prospective employer tells him, wondering if he has the right man for the job. "I can be," he mutters, almost abashed.

Professionally, Joe appears to be halfway between a private eye and a hired thug, specialising in rescuing teenage girls from human traffickers, with his latest case involving the kidnapped daughter (Ekaterina Samsonov​) of a senator (Alex Manette​). This is a classic exploitation movie premise, and for much of its running time You Were Never Really Here can be taken as an arty variant on the kind of macho fantasy which has endured from Death Wish through to the recent Equalizer films: the lost soul with blood on his hands who nonetheless stays true to his obligation to protect the innocent.

Yet viewers seeking cheap thrills may lose patience within the first few minutes, which deliberately block us from getting a clear view of the hero: he's a silhouette, a body filmed from behind, a voice uttering gruff instructions over a close-up of a cab door. This visual fragmentation echoes the evident fragmentation of his personality: an early glimpse of his capacity for violence is followed by a series of scenes that show his tender relationship with his grotesque mother (Judith Roberts) who shares his dingy New York apartment.

Nudgingly, this unnamed character is first introduced watching Psycho on TV, leading Joe to mime the famous shower scene while weakly imitating Bernard Herrmann's​ screeching score (Ramsay may be oblique, but she isn't subtle). This is one early sign of the central importance Ramsay gives to music: Jonny Greenwood's score is every bit as audacious as his work with Paul Thomas Anderson, ranging from wandering atonal strings in the Herrmann​ vein to jangling guitars and electronica. Other key moments involve pop songs, used to create unlikely connections between the characters when words fail.

Everything in You Were Never Really Here happens abruptly, and can be broken off at any moment. Ramsay resembles Denis in leaving us constantly unsure where the next cut might take us: any image or sound could conceivably have a place in the mosaic. Enough information is provided to let us discern the rudiments of a conventional plot – but our understanding of this remains tentative, hypothetical, shadowed by the possibility that all is not as it seems.

By the end, the film has become so outlandish that it resembles science fiction – at least, the kind of science fiction represented by Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, with its implication that outer space and inner space are more or less the same thing. Ramsay doesn't spell things out for us, and a review shouldn't either. But it's not giving away too much to suggest that the title is worth some thought.

Jake Wilson was born in London and grew up in Melbourne. He got his start reviewing movies for various websites and has been writing for the Age since 2006.