If the past few years have taught us anything, it’s that where there is power – money, celebrity, authority – there is abuse of that power. This is the subject that Scottish auteur Lynne Ramsay (Ratcatcher, We Need to Talk About Kevin) takes for her latest feature, the New York set, You Were Never Really Here. Eschewing genre thrills for a focus on texture and an overwhelming nightmarish tone, this fragmentary neo-noir first appeared at Cannes last year, where it picked up Best Screenplay and Best Actor for star, Joaquin Phoenix – despite not being fully finished.
Dishevelled, with a thick grey beard and a layer of muscle that implies necessity rather than vanity, Phoenix plays Joe; a traumatised ex-services mercenary-cum-vigilante for hire. Joe’s specialty seems to be intervening in cases of abduction, and as we meet him at the bloody culmination of one job, it appears he is monstrously efficient. “They say that you’re brutal,” a Senator whose pre-teen daughter is missing tells him. “I can be,” Joe replies, as he accepts a job that sends him headfirst – claw hammer in hand – into a underage brothel. The ex-soldier has been conditioned by his time in the army, and while he is physically equipped to take on these tasks, he is mentally disintegrating and his violent occupation sends him up against evil that is too systemic and deeply rooted to ever be surmountable.
The neon-lit New York setting, thundering score (an electronic number from Jonny Greenwood that underlines the fact that he’s one of the best around) and disturbing subject matter have drawn comparisons with Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, but Claire Denis’ despairing anti-capitalist neo-noir Bastards feels like a better touchstone, and besides, this is very much a Lynne Ramsay film. The director underscores the moral and psychological heft of the piece with an emphasis on scuffed surfaces, scarred skin and the weight of a hammer that reads “Made in U.S.A.” There’s a mesmeric style and pace to proceedings, and while You Were Never Really Here is a genre movie, it’s one that is stripped back to a grimly brutal reality that will leave receptive viewers in a state of desolation.
You Were Never Really Here screens at HOME on Tuesday 27th March with director Lynne Ramsay in attendance. The film will be on general release from Friday 9 March.