You Were Never Really Here

by Toby Woollaston

ywnrhSeven years ago Scottish director Lynne Ramsay ushered us, along with a very tired looking Tilda Swinton, into the disturbing world of Kevin. Among other themes, We Need to Talk About Kevin was a cold hard look at the warped mind of a killer. Ramsay’s damming statement on America’s weaponised culture was curiously (and perhaps more strikingly) made with the absence of guns. You Were Never Really Here is no different as it follows a “hired gun”, who plies his trade with a ball-peen hammer. Although one should know never to take a hammer to a gun fight, Joe who is played by a very beefy looking Joaquin Phoenix certainly knows how to swing one.

When a senator’s daughter, Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov) goes missing, Joe finds himself embroiled in a twisted ring of underage sex trafficking. Nina’s traumatic upbringing holds a mirror to Joe’s own, elevating his mission into a vigilante cause. 

Living with his frail mum, Joe keeps to himself and one of the film’s lighter moments humorously acknowledges his similarity to Psycho’s Norman Bates. Indeed, Ramsey’s psycho-dramatic take on crime does in many ways resemble a modern-day Hitchcock as she dives deep into Joe’s subconscious. 

Actually, the film owes a lot to its predecessors, markedly paying homage to Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. But what it seems to furiously batter its long eyelashes at is Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive. Those who were mesmerised by the latter’s intense, monosyllabic, and heavily stylised violence will find appeal here.

It’s a rich blend of brutal beauty cut to a hypnotising electronic score, all wonderfully balanced by Joaquin’s physical performance — it’s spellbinding stuff and Ramsay’s sensual style of story-telling is undeniably compelling.

Although the simple narrative suggests style over substance, Ramsay has laced this tale with ample subtext. Most notably it mercilessly swings a bag of bloody hammers at one of ​humanity’s most urgent sins, human trafficking. Thankfully, it doesn’t let you leave the cinema without a relieving sense of hope.

See my reviews for the NZ Herald here and for Witchdoctor here.

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