So the weekend just gone (at the time of writing this review), I went up to the Glasgow Film Festival. Now I have a it of history with this festival for this blog, with the first few film reviews I wrote (which are pretty much unreadable now) being for films I saw at the 2011 Glasgow Film Festival, mainly Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Kramer vs Kramer. This time, I wanted to watch an upcoming film and, due to the reception this got at Cannes, along with it being made by a Scottish director, the one I wanted to see was Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here. It’s always great to see a new Lynne Ramsey film due to the length of time between her films (her last film was We Need To Talk About Kevin released in 2011) and I was interested to see her take on an action film. Having seen it, the best way I can describe it is as a Lynne Ramsey film, anyone who’s seen her other films will know the tone that she is going for in this film.
The film focuses on Joe, a former Army veteran and FBI agent who has turned away from those lives due to the horrors he experienced during his time there, getting offered a job to rescue the daughter of a Senator from a brothel, accepting the job due to his own history with abuse, both experiencing it directly and witnessing it. After Joe rescues the girl, he finds that he has stumbled into a vast political conspiracy which has put himself and those he cares about in danger. Now the story on paper sounds quite cliched but the way it’s executed adds a unique element to the film. For starters, we don’t really get fed the true nature of the conspiracy, we see images of it and Ramsey trusts the audience to put all the pieces together in their heads, something which is unique for a noir of this style. The real element that makes the plot stand out though is the thematic depth of the film. The conspiracy itself is not the side of the film that engages you, it’s the character of Joe himself. I’ll get more into the character itself but the theme of the film is tied into the character and that is of the cycle of abuse. Joe is a character who was abused by his dad and has seen how other people have been abused in different ways and he works as best he can to break the cycle of abuse.
Probably the most engaging part of the film though is the character of Joe himself, through both the writing and Joaquin Phoenix’s performance, which is one of his best performances. Simply put, Joe is a broken man. All the horrors he’s experienced have worn him down into a figure addicted to painkillers to numb the pain of his life, doing whatever he can to find some moments of levity and engagement in the world around him, not just rescuing children but with his relationship with his mum, which feels very believable, and doing things like crushing jelly beans to see them crystalise, creating some level of levity for his character, even going into some of the more brutal actions the character does, notably an interrogation near the end of the film. Phoenix nails all of these aspects of the character, along with giving Joe a physicality that makes him an intimidating presence and provides a history for the character, mainly having his back covered in scars, a legacy of the abuse he suffered, with this physicality making him pretty much unrecognisable compared to his other character. His face meanwhile has a look throughout the film of a man who is just waiting for death with it probably being a mercy for the character to die, which is enforced by the events of the film.
The direction by Lynne Ramsey meanwhile makes this an effective, brutal action film, where you never actually see much of the action. For most of these scenes we only see the aftermath and when we do see the action it’s brutal, highlighting the pain and shock of each of the characters as they experience the violence. The standout in this area is when Joe is rescuing Nina and we see the rescue through the CCTV camera footage, the footage switching between cameras so we only see brief, brutal hints of the action which, when combined with the black and white look of the scene and the use of Angel Baby (mainly the song skipping) creates a much more brutal scene that we’re actually shown, aided by the fact that a hammer is Joe’s weapon of choice. The music meanwhile adds to the brutal, disturbing tone of the film, Ramsay’s use of songs being a great showcase for this, mainly with the use of Angel Baby, whilst Johnny Greenwood’s score adds a disturbing, deranged quality to the film, having the feel of a messed up western and adding to the tension Ramsey creates throughout the film, aided by excellent cinematography and editing.
Overall, You Were Never Really Here is an interesting action film. By focusing more on the character of Joe rather than the story, we get a fascinating look at a broken man. By making this so stripped back, brutal and lean (the film is just under 90 minutes long), Ramsey creates one of the most unique action films I’ve seen in a long time. This is not a film for everyone but I do feel it is a worthy watch and is a film that has stayed with me and inspired more respect the more I think about it.
My Rating: 5/5