Sometimes you watch a film which reminds you just how plot obsessed we have become in our media landscape. The quest for weightier and more complex narrative continues to drive modern popular cinema, perhaps in a response to the complexities of the great stories being told on our TV screens. However in film sometimes you don’t need a lot of narrative shifts in order to leave a great impression. You Were Never Really Here (2018, Dir. Lynne Ramsay) is an exercise in taut and abrasive storytelling with hardly any meat on the bones to pick on.
We have a hitman hired to seek revenge on child pornographers or paedophiles in general and suddenly n one job things take a turn for the worse. This is essentially the entire narrative of the film, however within this Ramsey challenges the audience and uses every trick in her arsenal to make this short brutal film as effective as possible. Joe is our main character, played by the ever brilliant Joaquin Phoenix, a recent veteran with a gift for reeking bloody justice on the darkest and most depraved of society. His vigilante justice shares more than a little with Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver. He may be less talkative and perhaps a more endearing a psychopath than Bickle but it is clear that the two share a psycho cinema bloodline. Much like Bickle we feel the nihilism of the main character and his lack of care or sympathy for the dregs of society. Ramsey herself pulls our attention to the comparison between the two nutjobs, we have scenes of Joe walking in the exact same way as the swaggering Bickle. We also have parallels with the political figures of taxi driver, however they are much less sympathetically seen in Lynne Ramsey’s eyes, becoming embroiled deeper and deeper into Joe’s perverse alternative society. Scorsese is clearly the main influence here and it is writ very large for those who are familiar with the 70s masterpiece, however this is still its own film and in essence is more a reworking of the story for a modern age.
As may be apparent this is not exactly a fun watch and at points it can be teeth clenchingly nasty and brutal. Ramsey does not use this subject however to really leer at the violence of the story and instead often chooses to find some kind of prism to view the hyper-violence of Joe through. Be it in a mirror or through the lens of a CCTV camera the audience is often one step removed from whatever horrific thing is happening at the hands of Joe. It is as if Ramsey is reluctant herself to show these actions in stark HD and would rather the audience itself was able to step back and just observe him, like a caged animal ripping apart its lunch.
The film as a whole is more a character study than a video nasty and often spends a lot of time not progressing, Ramsey would rather give Joe the space to think and contemplate what he is doing in his life and in turn let us sit with him and contemplate our own reactions to him as a person. Instead of just powering ahead and letting the audience gawk at the horror of Joe we instead get to see him as a human being, we see him with his mother and the care he brings to her. We hear him be funny with her and also see the violence in his own past which has led to his own insensitivity to violence and his line of work. The film asks us to consider Joe as a real person much more than is often comfortable and as the film moves into its final act you do start to care about him much more than you may expect to. He is a man removed from the world around him, the film pays attention to him but also the spaces he leaves behind and will linger and shift its eye from him to those around him. We see the normality of the society that surrounds him and yet we know that we are not here to really look at that and as Joe spirals out the film starts to become more and more insular, we zone in whilst Joe zones out.
Ramsey here has created a razor-sharp, taut and Brutal meditation on the human psyche at its limits, and the confidence and strength of Phoenix’s performance pummelled me into submission to its savage viewpoint. If I see another film this year that is this tightly constructed and gut punching I will be very impressed.
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