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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 20 June 2018

Film review: You Were Never Really Here is a brutal masterpiece

Lynne Ramsay returns following seven-year directing hiatus

Joaquin Phoenix plays Joe, a military veteran turned hired gun. Courtesy Front Row Entertainment
Joaquin Phoenix plays Joe, a military veteran turned hired gun. Courtesy Front Row Entertainment

It seems remarkable that You Were Never Really Here is Scottish director Lynne Ramsay’s first feature since 2011’s We Need to Talk About Kevin. That film won huge critical appraisal, was nominated for multiple awards, and made enough of an impact at the box office to class it as a commercial success – no mean feat in itself for an undeniably difficult watch delving into the murkiest depths of the human psyche. That film’s star, Ezra Miller (aka DC’s The Flash) even referred to Ramsay as the world’s greatest living film maker in conversation with The National recently.

So why has it taken so long for Ramsay to return to the director’s chair? She has been attached to projects in the meantime, including the female-led Western Jane Got a Gun, but she quit that movie after fighting with the ­producers over the direction of the film – the financiers reportedly wanted a happy ending, and already had re-­edits in mind before shooting had even begun. Ramsay then failed to show up for that film’s first day of shooting, in the process earning a reputation for being “difficult”.

You Were Never Really Here would seem to serve as a prime example of the work that can be produced if, instead of arguing with a “difficult” director, you have faith in their abilities. The film’s brutality, Ramsay’s refusal to follow cinematic conventions, the sparse dialogue and lack of traditional narrative structure, and just the movie’s sheer oddness would be anathema to most commercially minded producers. Thankfully, the Anglo-French team behind the film are not among them, and in giving Ramsay the creative freedom others denied her, they have helped her create a true masterpiece of modern cinema.

Joaquin Phoenix, who won Best Actor at Cannes last year for his role, alongside Ramsay’s Best Screenplay Award, plays Joe, a military vet with PTSD. Joe now works as a hired gun, specialising in rescuing abducted children, alongside caring for his elderly mother. I know what you’re thinking – “psychologically scarred war vet cleans criminal vermin off the streets of New York? Has a soft side and something of a saviour complex when it comes to teenage girls? So far, so Taxi Driver…”

Conceptually, you may have a point, but Ramsay’s film is an entirely different beast. This film isn’t about Joe’s psychological torture – it is his psychological torture.

Each grainy black and white close-up of body parts, each bludgeoning blow with his ball hammer of choice, each discordant echo from Johnny Greenwood’s disorienting soundtrack takes us further into the twisted, abused mind of our antihero.

The film won’t be to everyone’s taste. Ramsay’s avoidance of a traditional narrative structure; the often unnatural colour palette and cinematography with jarring, disjointed edits; the lack of dialogue and the sheer brutality of the film all place it firmly at the “challenging” end of the scale. If you choose to take the challenge, however, the visual, aural, tonal, sensory overload is well and truly worth the effort.

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Read more:

Flash spectrum: Ezra Miller talks about everything but the big movie

From singles to soundtracks: how pop stars bought a ticket for the cinema

We Need to Talk About Kevin: One film's exploration of a mother's agony

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You Were Never Really Here

Director: Lynne Ramsay

Starring: Joaquim Phoenix, Ekaterina Samsonov

Four stars