By Ryan Keating-Lambert
Lynne Ramsey’s hallucinatory revenge drama seems like a quiet tribute to Taxi Driver, with a wonderfully raw and stripped down performance from Joaquin Phoenix. There’s a welcoming focus on primitive emotion rather than balls-out action.
Based on the Jonathan Ames novel, haunted contract killer Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) is given a seemingly easy job of rescuing teenage girl Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov) from the New York sex trade, but everything inevitably goes wrong.
Lynne Ramsey (We Need to Talk About Kevin) makes a triumphant return to the big screen with pure visceral emotion. You Were Never Really Here aka A Beautiful Day, rather than dwelling on the dirty details of such a crime, which involves a New York senator, the film focuses on the tortured soul of Joe – an ex Gulf War veteran and FBI agent whose only escape from past trauma is to recede into a haze of medication and violence, while also taking care of his ageing mother.
Ramsey’s screenplay is minimal, relying more on Phoenix’s astounding performance than dialogue. Phoenix masters the character’s internalised struggle and despite his hardened exterior, is more mess than macho. A subtle but engaging performance that earned him Best Actor at Cannes this year, where the film also received a 7-minute standing ovation.
The film also puts a great emphasis on violence as Joe literally hammers his way through the plot, but there’s never a moment that we don’t feel the consequences of such brutality, whether through the character’s incessant flashbacks and haunting voice-overs, or his flirtations with suicide.
It’s not all brutal, however. Ramsey creates some truly emotional and polarising moments, including a brief and unexpected sing-a-long to Charlene’s ‘I’ve Never Been to Me’. The grittier action scenes owe a lot to Thomas Townend’s remarkable cinematography, including a tense break-in scene captured only through security cameras.
Combined with Johnny Greenwood’s evocative soundtrack, You Were Never Really Here is another stand-out film in both Ramsey and Phoenix’s career, and an ambitious push for the crime genre, much like the Safdie Brothers’ equally brutal Good Time, also at Cannes this year.
You Were Never Really Here is currently screening in Prague’s Be2Can Film Festival. Catch it while you can.
Photo: Festival de Cannes