Lynne Ramsay’s latest is Taken for the arthouse crowd.
Based on Jonathan Ames’ novel of the same name, You Were Never Really Here stars Joaquin Phoenix as Joe, a burly, beardy hitman with a man-bun and a barely subsumed death wish.
Phoenix embodies Joe with a haunted, dead-eyed intensity, both silent force and a screaming absence, moving through the world like a hurricane with a claw hammer; his expression, under a hoody, is one of rigid grief or fear. He looks like a man wearing a mask of his own face. His only human contact outside of work is his mother (Judith Roberts), whom he treats with the same tenderness lacking in the rest of his life.
When a Senator’s daughter (Ekaterina Samsonov) goes missing, Joe is charged with recovering her, but, in doing so, finds himself with a case that doesn’t stop at his front door. Any illusion he has of domesticity is stripped away as Joe’s life become a nightmarish fun-house ride into hell; a hotel bedroom is thrown back at us askew in a broken ceiling mirror as one character has the life choked from them.
Joe’s lifetime of varied trauma, from his abusive father to time spent in Afghanistan, leaks through to us in brief, impressionistic flashes; as if from a suppurating wound. A scene where he stalks the corridors of a brothel expresses dislocation as our perspective cuts between b-&-w CCTV footage; most of the violence occurring just out of shot, the treacly tune of ’60s doo-wop made otherworldly by a record-skip Doppler effect.
As 2011’s We Need To Talk About Kevin, Ramsay presents a startling portrait of psychosis, but here it’s one unavoidably weighed down by genre tropes. Part conspiracy thriller, part Taxi Driver, for all its virtuosity – from Joe Bini’s hard-hitting editing to Jonny Greenwood’s strident, Cliff Martin-esque synth score – the film struggles to articulate the absence and brutality at its heart into something more profound.
No matter the Cannes love, absence is not in itself commentary, and so You Were Never Really Here is ultimately nothing to write home about.