Director Lynne Ramsey returns to our screens with this rousing rollercoaster of violence, in which the We Need to Talk About Kevin helmer answers the age old question “what if we took the set up for a Jason Statham movie and gave it some serious arthouse credibility?”, bringing the increasingly top-of-his-game Joaquin Phoenix along for the ride.
Yes, on paper, You Were Never Really Here doesn’t so much reinvent the wheel as it does lovingly stroke it, though, on hitting the screen, Ramsey and Phoenix deliver one of the more impressively executed emotional explorations of the nature of violence in some years.
Our Stathamesque setup sees Phoenix’s PTSD-ridden vet Joe eeking a living as a specialised contractor employed to track down and extract children and teens lured into the sex trade. Employed by an illustrious senator to intervene in the kidnapping of his daughter, Joe sets about doing what he does best, rescuing the innocent girl amidst a cacophony of silenced headshots and gruesome murders.
Unbeknownst to Joe, however, the kidnapping is only the first part in a larger scheme at work. A scheme that may well cost Joe not only his entire world, but his sanity as well.
It’s hard to imagine any potential casting for Joe having worked out so flawlessly as Phoenix’s here, the Walk the Line star bringing fierce intensity, an understated physicality, and powerful introspection to a role that could simply have been handed off pleasantly enough to Liam Neeson, were there not an obviously successful desire to mine something wholeheartedly more towering from it.
It’s not a star vehicle, in the traditional sense, but with an artistic flourish the likes of which Lynne Ramsey provides, You Were Never Really Here quickly and rather firmly establishes itself as the potential “thinking man’s action flick” of 2018.
That flourish and directorial eye are, as it happens, equally instrumental to making this vibrant and violent tale the great work it becomes, with Ramsey naturally dialling down the more ethereal stylistic components of Kevin in favour of something more aesthetically “street-level”.
You Were Never Really Here may trade the suburbs for the urban pavements narratively, but Ramsey’s real win here – rocketed into the stratosphere by Thomas Townend’s cinematography and a marvel of a score by Johnny Greenwood – is to make you feel the tangibility of that shift with each passing step Joe takes along the way.
Though its quiet post-Oscar release and arthouse cred will doubtless see You Were Never Really Here fail to catch on particularly well with multiplex audiences, it’s something of a damned shame.
Ramsey’s fourth effort behind the camera, it’s an absolute belter for both the arthouse crowd and those looking for a straight-up rousing action-thriller in equal measure, bringing with it another top-shelf turn from Joaquin Phoenix in the process.
You Were Never Really Here is in cinemas nationwide from Friday, March 30th; rated 15. Check out the trailer below.