Cannes 2017: You Were Never Really Here, review: an experience fully capable of blowing you away
In a Cannes of numerous feel-bad mission statements, Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here is the feel-worst. The film dropkicks you into a cosmos of pain, depravity and blunt-force trauma with only the faintest flickers of light at the end of the tunnel. It’s not an experience to relish, exactly, but it’s still one that’s fully capable of blowing you away.
The Scottish director begins this, her first film since We Need to Talk About Kevin in 2011, as she means to continue: with a series of swift, disorienting images, initially in a Cincinnati motel room. We see a bloodied hammer, the burning photo of a young Asian girl, and polythene over a smoke alarm – a man’s head, breathing in and out, inside a plastic bag. This is Joe (Joaquin Phoenix, with an unruly grey beard), and in the first proper look we get at him, he has completed whatever the hell his hideous business has been, and emerges, hoodie up, into a side alley.
Joe rescues children from sex rings. He is hired to do so, not by the authorities, but private clients – typically the parents of teenagers who have gone missing, and who entrust him to do this vastly unpleasant job with speed, finesse and a willingness to bludgeon the perpetrators beyond repair.
The film’s body count is somewhere in the Chuck Norris vicinity, but Ramsay is far too serious a filmmaker to dwell on Joe’s brutal modes of dispatch. She and her editor, Joe Bini, find an amazing array of methods to conjure and intimate violence without lingering upon it: the film is a sustained master class in ghoulishness-avoidance.
What it has no intention of avoiding is moral consequence. It’s a thriller that makes itself sick, rather than giving us the thriller-satisfaction other directors, even good directors, might have wrung from the material – a hard-boiled novella by Jonathan Ames.
In Phoenix, Ramsay has a major ally in staking her case for bleak psychological artistry. Weighed down with the horrific ballast of things he has suffered and seen – he’s a Gulf War veteran and former FBI agent, too, with the scars to prove it – Joe comes to life in an almost gruelingly subtle and interiorized performance, up there with Phoenix’s very best work for James Gray or Paul Thomas Anderson.
The one person in Joe’s life with whom he has anything other than a strictly professional relationship – counting all the ones that last mere seconds, ending with a thwack – is his mother, played by a little-known but tremendous actress called Judith Roberts. She’s in the pronounced stages of dementia, living in a messy Queens’s home to which he retreats between jobs. “This cream cheese is from 1972,” he quips exasperatedly, on scouring the fridge. Evidence is scant for his sense of humor, but there it is.
The main plot kicks in all of a sudden, when Joe’s supervising figure (The Wire’s John Doman) sends him to meet Senator Votto (Alex Manette), whose 14-year-old daughter, played by a blank-staring Ekaterina Samsonov, has disappeared. “I want you to hurt them,” he is told, by a father clearly in the process of scooping out his soul, and Phoenix’s silent but pensive response tells us full well that this goes without saying. Joe’s preparations first involve a sphincter-tightening shopping spree, and the camera faintly closes in on a $16.99 ball-peen hammer, with “Made in USA” written on it, which will rarely stray far from his grasp from here on out.
No praise could be high enough for Ramsay’s insidious sound design and use of background music in the film, which deploys doo-wop ballads on the radio with haunting, rather than thumping, irony, and features a mumbled sing-along to Charlene’s “I’ve Never Been to Me” that will go down in legend: the hand that tenderly clasps Phoenix’s during this bizarrely romantic interlude is about the last one you’d ever match make him with. Meanwhile, even by his own unbeatable standards of film work, Jonny Greenwood’s score is a deadly engine of threat and anguish, chugging away with agitated synth percussion and moaning little hints of jazzy 1970s sleaze.
Inevitably, Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver is at the back of the film’s mind, but Ramsay and Phoenix have taken this disturbed-veteran-savior figure and reinvented him into a tragic street warrior, suspended in a purgatory since childhood – as a dumb witness to his mother’s awful battering – between death wish and messiah complex. We hear a fragment from The Shawshank Redemption playing on TV, about the Pacific having no memory, but Joe’s only hope to obliterate his own grotesque past is suicide, and so he pointedly leads himself to water: there’s a slow-motion lake visit which owes a further intriguing debt to Jane Campion’s The Piano.
Ramsay never tosses in these references for mere fun and games – obliquely Meta, they’re all part of her strategy to render Joe as a rich cinematic composite, an uber-character. Misread as a pure genre exercise, this would all be leading us to the threshold of bloody release – and indeed, the last half-hour is an extrapolation from the story entirely of Ramsay’s own devising. But she shows us less and less, banning catharsis with stern slices of the editing shears, and her analysis of revenge turns out to be exacting and remarkable. The complexity of Phoenix’s art is such that he can howl inwardly for stolen retribution and simultaneously feel the full horror of a young girl’s undoing, with gasps of incredulous laughter straight from the gallows.
It is hard, harrowing, not-for-the-faint-of-heart stuff. But the immensity of Ramsay’s film lies in the scalpel surgery of her image making, distilling and triple-distilling the stuff she shot to make every second count. Some of the quickest shots do the most damage, but when the camera finds a vivid contrast – like Joe crumbling a green jelly bean in his fingers, or his hefty bulk swinging down a corridor with a pre-Raphaelite wench peeking out from behind – the pauses count, too. Joe even stops on the street, accosted by a gaggle of tourists to take their photo in SoHo, and two worlds surreally collide for a beat, as the girls obliviously pose and laugh while he puts his bag of death equipment down to give them a hand. In these staggeringly taut 85 minutes, Ramsay sees a hopeless universe in a jellybean.