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London Film Festival Review: You Were Never Really Here – “A new level of riveting, disturbing brilliance”

After being consecrated as one of the most exciting filmmakers working today with her critical darling third feature We Need To Talk About Kevin (2011), Lynne Ramsay was on board to helm Natalie Portman-starrer Jane Got A Gun but creative differences drove her to leave the project behind. Not all setbacks are necessarily a bad thing though and whilst it would’ve been great to see the visionary Scottish filmmaker tackle a western – adapting Jonathan Ames’ novella You Were Never Really Here was certainly the perfect way to make up for that missed opportunity.

Starring multi-Oscar nominee Joaquin Phoenix, this unsettling thriller is way more than meets the eye, using a premise that may sound like an average Hollywood actioner but actually delivering a gritty, dark drama that aims to find hope amidst bleakness and violence. In line with Ramsey’s work, this is a stylish piece where sparse dialogue, crafty editing and an intense soundscape enhanced with the unnerving score composed by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood make for a distinct cinematic experience.

Going in with little-to-no information about the story, it’ll take you a little bit to piece the puzzle of who is Joe, the protagonist – played brilliantly and in typically uncompromising fashion by Phoenix, who remains one of the greatest actors of our time. He deservedly won the best actor trophy at Cannes where the film world-premiered back in May and Ramsey also earned the best screenplay accolade. Despite having yet to read the source material, it certainly feels like the filmmaker made it her own, thanks to her unique blend of taut, grotesque and harrowing storytelling where style serves substance.

You Were Never Really Here throws us immediately in the midst of one of Joe’s “operations”, and from the very opening scene, the narrative is interspersed with a series of haunting and cryptic flashbacks that recur throughout the film, connecting the dots behind Joe’s tormented psyche. Soon it becomes clear he works as an enforcer going incognito on rescue missions for a private contractor. He is brutally violent on the job as much as he is tender and caring with his senile mother at home. When he gets swallowed into a new case involving the disappearance of a senator’s young daughter at the mercy of a high profile paedophile ring, Joe has no idea what he got himself into this time around as the antagonistic forces at play are way beyond his reach.

The less you know about the story the more you’ll be able to enjoy the way it unfolds on screen as per Ramsey’s unique blend of compelling visuals and haunting sound design which on this film have touched a new level of riveting, disturbing brilliance thanks to the collaboration with Greenwood. The Radiohead multi-instrumentalist who has developed a successful side career path as film composer over the years (most notably on Paul Thomas Anderson’s films) was the perfect fit to set the tone of a story with such relentless tension, unpredictable turns and a tormented protagonist.

The film’s journey is all about unlocking Joe’s psyche – something that Greenwood’s score significantly contributes to, heightening an already richly syncopated soundscape whose jittery style will keep you on the edge of your seat. And with Phoenix at the top of his game, you’ll soon be feeling uneasy and on edge as the protagonist literally disappears into the darkness of his mission, trying to make sense of what’s going on, whilst constantly battling the demons of his past. The perfectly intercut flashbacks are not fully-fledged sequences but literally just blink-like flashes of his previous line of work and especially of his traumatic childhood, both of which have heavily affected his now PTSD-ridden life in devastating fashion.

Joe is a man looking for meaning, redemption and of course an inner peace he’s clearly never been able to experience. One of Ramsey’s greatest accomplishments is the economy of her storytelling. In other hands, the same film might’ve exceeded the 2 hours mark but she manages to convey all that’s needed in just below 90 minutes. You don’t need long expository scenes to understand Joe’s journey. You just need to experience it first-hand through his eyes, heart and mind. Rest assured an artist the calibre of Phoenix is able to express all that effortlessly so that by the cathartic finale you’ll have felt Joe’s pain without necessarily having to learn everything about him. It’s a pity then to hear that Amazon Studios have opted to hold the film’s release until next year to avoid an autumn window that’s already overcrowded with award season hopefuls. This will prevent You Were Never Really Here from being eligible at the next Oscars – although let’s be real, the Academy would probably have trouble connecting with such harrowing material anyway.

You Were Never Really Here had its UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival and will be released in UK cinemas in early 2018.

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