In any creative endeavour, the possibility that one’s work will be judged through the (normally rose-tinted) lens of comparison is almost unavoidable. The Trout Mask Replica or 2001: A Space Odyssey veneer of originality of almost invariably applied long after the stamp of excellence has been created by public and critical acceptance. Much of the pre-release discussion of Lynne Ramsay’s latest film You Were Never Really Here focused on the comparisons to films like Taxi Driver, Le Samourai, and the more recent Drive, but while these films share narrative and stylistic similarities to both the film version of You Were Never Really Here and Jonathan Ames’ novella upon which it is based, the editorial approach taken by Ramsay prevents her latest project from becoming hackneyed. In the age of big name, big budget, cinematic-universe event films, the tightly paced and muscular brevity of the film is refreshing, and much needed. As Joaquin Phoenix’s Joe lurches through the one of the grimmest depictions of the American east-coast in decades, the picture refuses to stand-on-ceremony, every scene exists to drive Joe, and the viewer, towards the grinding conclusion that is clearly coming. You Were Never Really Here is consciously indebted to Scorsese’s blood soaked brothel shootout in Taxi Driver, and the societal degradation and paranoia of Serpico’s final dénouement in a New York tenement. Intriguingly, Ramsay herself will be the draw for many viewers, as 2011’s We Need to Talk About Kevin has drawn a larger and larger following, largely thanks to a lengthy stay on Netflix, to the Scottish director. The other two standout names from the team, Phoenix and Jonny Greenwood are, for all their talent, relatively low key individuals, at least by Hollywood standards, and the film benefits from this; the cinema-go’er is saved from the ever-present overacting of the contemporary Hollywood prestige leading man, or needless Oscar seeking post-production additions. The pace and single mindedness of the original novella, at just 92 pages, and the adapted screenplay, do have their drawbacks, as the film speeds past characters and motivations, leaving it up to the viewer to interpret the flashbacks that communicate Joe’s wordless internal monologue. Some viewers are certain to be turned off by this technique, as are others by the recurrent physical and sexual violence that make up the bulk of the film.
The promise and premise of the film is enacted in the centrepiece scene, which occurs surprisingly early in the film, as Joe looks to rescue a girl from an underae brothel. Shot almost entirely through CCTV cameras, the silent, unflinching view of Joaquin Phoenix violently dispatching guards on his way to rescue Nina, his job to save her clearly playing second fiddle to his, and the audience’s, need for brutal catharsis at the end of a blunt hammer. The reintroduction of dialogue and the return to traditional camerawork comes too early, and separates the film from true auteur cinema, however, the stark simplicity of Lynne Ramsay’s vision and trust in her audience. You Were Never Really Here is likely the most challenging mainstream release so far this year, but well worth the investment for those willing to take a more constructive view of the often difficult violence.
You Were Never Really Here is playing at Edinburgh FilmHouse