The worst part about seeing a new Lynne Ramsay film is knowing that it could more than five years before the next one. Ramsay is probably best known either for directing We Need To Talk About Kevin, or walking off the Natalie Portman western Jane Got a Gun just days before shooting was supposed to start. She’s one of the most uncompromising voices working in filmmaking today, so when she makes a new film, it merits attention. When she makes a modern noir thriller starring a ball-peen hammer wielding Joaquin Phoenix – now that sounds like required viewing.
Phoenix stars as Joe, a fixer with a reputation for efficiency and brutality. Joe isn’t your typical private detective and he certainly isn’t your average action hero. Phoenix bulked up for the role, turning himself into a malevolent mess of a man, hiding his face beneath a scraggy beard and long hair. He looks like the kind of guy you might cross the street to avoid. When he’s not working, Joe cares for his elderly mother (Judith Roberts), singing alphabet songs and cleaning silverware by hand. It’s a quiet, nuanced, and ferocious performance, one that works to elevate the film above its pulpy genre conventions.
The bones of You Were Never Here are pure noir. Joe’s handler McLeary (John Doman) put him in touch with a senator named Albert Votto (Alex Manette), who has hired him to find his missing daughter Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov. Votto has learned that his daughter is being held in a brothel that specializes in underaged girls and hires Joe for his brutal reputation. When the job goes sideways, Joe’s life starts to fall apart as he finds himself at the center of a conspiracy that goes all the way to the governor. The private eye on a job gone wrong is a story almost as old a cinema, but Ramsay’s film is one of the rare cases where style amounts to substance, leaving You Where Never Here feeling like something distinctly different.
Lynne Ramsay has created an open wound of a film. Based on Jonathan Ames’s novella, Ramsay’s script always has something on its mind, bubbling beneath the surface. The relatively simple detective story belies as surprisingly deep study of trauma and the failure of violence as authority. In the hands of a lesser director, this could have devolved into John Wick with a hammer. Ramsay has gone the other way. There’s nothing beautiful or acrobatic about the film’s violence. It’s not a ballet, it’s an assault.
Verdict: 4 out of 5
You Where Never Really Here was purchased by Amazon Studios, meaning most people will likely experience this film at home on their computer or television, which is a shame, because the film merits big screen viewing. Thomas Townend’s starkly beautiful cinematography and Joe Bini’s violent edits are most effective on the biggest screen possible and the film’s excellent score by Jonny Greenwood should be cranked as loud as possible. Lynne Ramsay’s films are not films to be swallowed smoothly, and this is no exception. It might be more of a conventional genre piece, but that doesn’t make it any less brutal or effective or any less worth your time. It’s a stirring gut punch movie. I only hope I don’t need to wait another seven years for her next.