Director Lynne Ramsay follows up her critically acclaimed film We Need To Talk About Kevin with this equally provocative story that, again, tackles a sensitive subject head-on and refuses to shy away from its ugliness. Joaquin Phoenix stars as Joe, a tormented former FBI agent who now works as a gun-for-hire rescuing children from sex-traffickers. He employs a no-holds-barred brutality to his work and pursues his targets ruthlessly, stopping at nothing to save their victims. When he takes on a new high profile client his identity is compromised and he finds himself caught up in a merciless campaign of violence with a pedophile ring.
With a young girl's life at stake, Joe contends with horrific flashbacks to his own tragic youth, as well as nightmares from his work in the FBI and his time served in the military. It is a relentless narrative that takes the audience to hellish depths while delivering a mesmerising sensory overload.
Lynne Ramsay has outdone herself and achieved what so few have been able. She has followed up what so many pundits considered to be her masterpiece with a film that connects instantly and leaves no room for objectivity. Her previous film dealt with the aftermath of a mass-school shooting and it explored themes of guilt by association, forcing the viewer to contextualise the situation with a suggested sense of empathy. Whereas YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE has no grey areas whatsoever. The bad guys are vile and there's never any doubt about lines that need to be crossed to bring them down.
When I love a film as much as I love this one I am reluctant to draw comparisons with other titles. To do so might imply that I'm questioning its authority, but in this instance I feel obliged to highlight several points of reference, all of which influence Ramsay's direction and motivation. As implied in my opening comments, there is an immediate familiarity with the early work of Jim Jarmusch. A jarring soundtrack pummels the screen as opening titles brand the meandering introduction of Joe. It's beautiful stuff and sets a perfect tone for what's to follow. My mind also reflected on the early work of Martin Scorsese and Luc Besson with the city landscape providing a sinister backdrop to a world short on innocence. Echoes of David Cronenberg's film-noir rang true, as did the seedy undercurrents of Nicholas Wending Refn's mastery and cheeky nods to Oldboy. And with so many catalytic flecks throughout the story, Ramsay has used their counsel to maximum effect.
Joaquin Phoenix hands over a remarkable performance, leaving no disciplined stone unturned. Assuming a dishevelled appearance with a defeated demeanour, he navigates the material with precision. With very little dialogue he relies on his emotional bearing to articulate his motive. Flashbacks to his past are fleeting and sporadic, providing just enough suggestion of his mental state and allowing his actions to inform the rest. It's a tour-de-force performance, which I would regard amongst his best. Fourteen year old Ekaterina Samsonov co-stars as Nina, the girl who Joe snatches from the hands of rapists, and she is also excellent. Her traumatised persona is emphasises perfectly through her likeminded performance, which owes much dept to the power of suggestion.
And finally, the music by Johnny Greenwood of Radiohead fame. YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE is his seventh score and arguably his best. His disjointed and experimental tropes provide a powerful and strident accompaniment to Ramsay's grim and violent landscape. His sounds and her visuals make for a strong atmosphere, which allows the audience to venture down such a grim rabbit hole without shame. We're along for the ride as Joe faces his demons and smashes scumbag heads. It is as equally thrilling as it is upsetting, and Lynne Ramsey has her work cut out for her if she intends to raise the stakes for her next venture.