You Were Never Really Here tries to justify itself with every frame. The compositions are never less than painterly, the soundtrack is a cool blend of discordant violins and ironically used 1950s pop, and the editing is airtight. As a way of creating atmosphere, Ramsay’s film-making is technically proficient enough to give you palpitations (the atmosphere is nasty); but it’s not enough to dispel the suspicion that, whatever substance is, her film doesn’t have it.
Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) is a hired thug and momma’s boy, a man who’ll wreak havoc tidily. He lives with his jocular but frail and dependent mother and sweetly tucks her up at night, but during the day he’s being violent for money. He’s also twitchy with PTSD and is partial to auto-asphyxiation, traits that impressionistic flashbacks go some way to explaining.
Joe is very particular about his work. He sets up jobs through anonymous proxies, and it turns out that this is a wise but insufficient measure: when a seemingly standard (for him) job goes south, it spills into the rest of Joe’s life with devastating results.
The execution of this job and its immediate fallout are a great, gruesome joy to behold; after a scene-setting and humanising first act, Ramsay shows that she can do dirty thrills with the best of them. But the fact that she wants to achieve more than thrills doesn’t mean that she knows what to replace them with, and the final act of the film is rushed and pretentious as the film strains for something more – substance, perhaps – and comes up short.
There’s certainly nothing lacking in Phoenix’s performance. His embodiment of Joe is total and absorbing, and he carries everything about the character – his dreaminess, his anger, his distress and guilt – in the slumped shoulders and those amazing eyes, eyes that get more beautiful as the face around them gets craggier.
Like Robert Pattinson in Cannes Palme D’Or competitor Good Time, Phoenix is a world-stopping beauty who’s scraggled up to play an unhinged crim. As good as Pattinson’s performance is, no one is going to say he’s a better actor than Phoenix; but with Good Time he had an absorbing moral drama to act into. Phoenix, especially towards the end, finds himself emoting into thin air, without much by way of story – or, really, other characters – to play off.
You might disagree. We felt the same way about Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin, and if you liked that you’ll love the new film. But if you suspected that Kevin might be devoid of substance (whatever the hell that is), you’ll probably find that the problem with You Were Never Really Here is that there’s nothing really there.
|What||You Were Never Really Here film review|
|Where||Various Locations | MAP|
27 May 17 – 27 Jul 17, Times vary
|Price||£ determined by cinema|
|Website||Click here for more information|