IF the inner workings of filmmaking ran as smoothly as Japanese public transport, we may not have had to wait so long for a Lynne Ramsey film.
It has been more than six years since the disturbing brilliance of We Need to Talk About Kevin left audiences recoiling in their seats. In that time, Ramsey has seen The Lovely Bones and Jane’s Got a Gun slip out of her ingenious hands, due to creative and financial complications. Both films, as we know, eventually made it to the cinema. But neither pack nearly as bruising of a punch as the one project that did make it over the line with Ramsey still at the helm – You Were Never Really Here.
Showing no signs of creative rust, Ramsey’s You Were Never Really Here is an impressive work of mind shuddering and engulfing cinema. The plot, like Pierre Morel’s Taken, revolves around the search-and-rescue of a young girl taken by sexual abusers. But this is where many of the comparisons end – and they do with a blunt hammer blow. You Were Never Really Here is Taken executed with an artfully provocative hand. With inverted tropes and Jonny Greenwood’s devilishly absorbing score. This is Taken but taken to another realm – and another level.
Front and centre is the outstanding Joaquin Phoenix as hired gun Joe. With a bloated belly and shaggy beard, Joe’s messy physical appearance mirrors his perturbed state of mind. Fractured flashbacks give us a glimpse into his internalised trauma – childhood abuse and haunting PTSD. This is another troubled central character that Ramsey lets us under the skin of.
Joe, who still cares for his elderly mother (Judith Roberts), is sent to recover a politician’s daughter believed to have fallen into the clutches of a paedophile ring. Yet in taking the job, Joe uncovers a deeper web of deceit and corruption. Clearly unimpressed by the Trumpian current events, Ramsey has swapped in politicians for the mafia in her adaptation of Jonathan Ames’ novel.
This is a web the Joe becomes tangled in but also feels compelled – mainly by the innocence of young Nina (played by a terrific Ekaterina Samsonov) – to follow and destroy. In doing so, Joe must complete a Lazarus-like transformation and pull himself out of his own pit of despair.
The structure and pacing of You Were Never Really Here is just as subversive as Phoenix’s suicidal action lead. The film threatens to kick into full-throttle before easing us down to a creeping speed. A moment spent on the kitchen floor with Joe and one of his dying enemies, singing along to a pop song and holding hands, is testament to that. Similarly, the ending owes more to Charlie Kauffman’s Anomalisa than the action genre’s usal set-piece finale.
For those willing to venture down these fresh, dark alleyways of storytelling, the reward is an euphoric post-film feeling – similar to after Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.
Lynne Ramsay may not be Britain’s most prolific filmmaker, but she is building a filmography to challenge the finest.
Lynne, just please do not make us wait another six years for your next film. Life is too short to wait so long.