Even in the most skilful horror movies, feeling genuinely physically trapped by a film is a trick almost impossible to pull off for any director. Lynne Ramsay, though, has achieved just that in the masterful You Were Never Really Here, a whirling dervish of pain, fear, and anxiety that sinks its claws into your brain and soul early in its minuscule 85 minute runtime and doesn’t let you go until long after the credits roll. It’s an unshakeably distressing and brutal work of capital-A-Art, and almost certainly the film of the year.
Based on the hard boiled Jonathan Ames novella, Ramsay’s film follows Joe (a very bulked up Joaquin Phoenix), a suicidal Gulf War veteran and now muscle for hire. Joe is hired by wealthy clients to retrieve their children from trafficking rings when the police aren’t an option, sinking into the lowest depths of human depravity with every fresh job. As an exceedingly violent enforcer, Joe is in high demand when parents desire both a rescue and vengeance, but is dropped in way over even his head when his handler John (John Doman) sends him to retrieve Nina Votto (Ekaterina Samsonov), young runaway daughter of a state senator.
Things go hideously wrong almost instantly, but even with such a short film Ramsay gives Joe time to breathe before the violence begins in earnest. Her storytelling is ridiculously impressive in how much it packs in in any given scene, drawing a full backstory for Joe and his mother (Judith Roberts), who he lives with. Hugely unsettling flashbacks to Joe’s father’s rage and then Joe’s war experience are over in flash, flitting in and out of the main narrative, but tell us all we could possibly need to know. There’s even time for a warm sense of familial humour to develop.
It’s a brilliant turn from Phoenix, easily on a par with his best work, capturing Joe’s self-hatred and terror, but also the brief moments of happiness that cross his face for mere seconds and make all the difference to how sympathetic a protagonist he is. Given how frightening he is as a man, this humanising is vital, or else we might mistake the looming figure marching down narrow hallways with a hammer for one of the monsters he’s sworn to slay. Most other characters are kept on the periphery of Joe’s story, but Samsonov does good, unnerving work as a girl irreparably broken by the perverted savagery of the world.
With its hammer-wielding saviour complex hero and child abusing villains, You Were Never Really Here invites comparisons to Drive and, especially, Taxi Driver, two immense films which this easily surpasses and is equal to, respectively. Where Ramsay’s take on this material separates itself from those films, though, is its unique and gut-wrenching approach to violence. Stark direction and flawless editing refuse to let any of the carnage act as catharsis. Instead, it’s as consistently terrifying as it should be, and from an early raid on a brothel shot entirely by CCTV cameras, Ramsay ratchets up this fear until the film is practically screaming in your face for the final set piece.
To create this atmosphere, Ramsay complements her dark story with viscerally striking images, captured in all their raw details by DOP Thomas Townsend, and on top of the visuals sits Jonny Greenwood’s score. Even by his monumentally high standards this is a remarkable piece of work. It’s like he’s somehow managed to perfectly capture the feeling of being murdered and then, even more impossibly, transposed this sensation into music. When Greenwood’s not on the soundtrack, Ramsay deploys the occasional pop ballad, but instead of the winking irony they’d get used with in an ultraviolent Tarantino scene, their brief distraction from the horrors lends them a far more woozily powerful edge.
All of this adds up to an unshrinking study of the guilt of violence and how revenge is more likely to destroy those who seek it than those who deserve it. Hallucinatory memories haunt Joe as he goes about his hellish business, and even with the plentiful grotesquery of the world she has created, Ramsay never once slips into exploitation territory. She finds places for moments of both spirit-splintering beauty in the face of brutality and quaking fear in the face of mundanity.
‘Harrowing’ is a word that is overused in film criticism, as is (and I myself am guilty of this) ‘masterpiece’. You Were Never Really Here is one of those diamond-rare films, like Foxtrot earlier this year, that makes you feel silly for using up all your superlatives on lesser works, because now you have nothing adequate to say about its brilliance, but a harrowing masterpiece is what it is. Gruelling in the extreme, it’s an original and daring take on violence, trauma, and the male messiah fantasy. It’s been a very long six years waiting for Ramsay’s follow up to We Need To Talk About Kevin, but if that’s the sort of hiatus she needs to bring us films like this, then give her all the time in the world.