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  • Alistair Braidwood

You Have Been Watching…You Were Never Really Here.

Updated: Mar 9, 2022


Lynne Ramsay is to film what The Blue Nile are to music – discuss. She has made four films in 18 years, and it’s been seven between her last, We Need To Talk About Kevin, and her latest You Were Never Really Here. The Blue Nile released their four albums over 20 years, with the longest gap being 8 years between Peace At Last and High. Most importantly both proved to have put their time to good use, producing work which is of the highest quality in their respective fields.

You Were Never Really Here proves, if anyone were in any doubt, that Lynne Ramsay is one of the finest filmmakers around. From her unforgettable debut Ratcatcher, through Morvern Callar (one of the best ever film adaptations of a Scottish novel), to BAFTA & Global Globe winner We Need To Talk About Kevin, she produced a run of films to rival any other director. Could she keep it up? If you believed the recent rumours and hype surrounding Ramsay (leaving, or being asked to leave, various projects) then you may have thought this unlikely. However, if you simply look at the work – which is what matters – how could you doubt it?

You Were Never Really Here is a startling film in the best possible sense. It’s relentless, grabbing you from the first few frames and not letting go until the credits roll. It almost feels as if it is fly on the wall, “A Day In The Life Of A Hitman”, with Ramsay’s camera following Joaquin Phoenix’s ‘Joe’ as his life unfolds and unravels at speed. Joe is a killer-for-hire, whose weapons of choice are decidedly everyday, shopping, for practical and deeply psychological reasons, in hardware departments rather than gun stores.

It’s yet another mesmerising performance from Phoenix. There are few actors who use their physicality to produce an emotional reaction from an audience as he does. Tom Hardy and the young Russell Crowe are others who spring to mind, actors who you believe are more than capable of whatever they were asked to do on-screen. In You Were Never Really Here director and actor work together to create an unforgettable and nuanced character.

Joe has little dialogue yet is both believable, sympathetic, and complex. Ramsay asks the audience to do their share of the work as Joe’s background and current life are not explained explicitly (no Basil Exposition here). You have to keep watching as if you were to miss something, even a look or sigh, you risk losing part of the story. While it’s not easy viewing I found myself  transfixed with what was on-screen.

Which brings me to the violence. I’m not going to pretend that this is not a violent film, if one of the most beautiful ones you will ever see. The blood is almost alive! However, it’s not as graphically violent as it first appears. As, famously, Hitchcock did with the Psycho shower scene, Ramsay cuts away from most of the actual contact and killing, leaving your now traumatised imagination to fill in the gaps. Joe kills as a job, and is good at it, but there is an intense if damaged humanity at his core, (as with Psycho’s Norman Bates, Joe loves his mother).

The job is affecting him more than he realises, but you do sense that he has his own code of honour. This places him in the tradition of onscreen killers such as Forest Whitaker’s Ghost Dog, Tom Hanks’ Michael Sullivan in Road To Perdition, and particularly Jean Reno’s portrayal of Leon: The Professional who, as with Joe, finds his life changed by an unlikely relationship with a girl.

You Were Never Really Here is a taught 85mins long, and it seemed to go by in half that time. It left me breathless, and yet wanting, despite the subject matter, to watch it again to see what I had missed, and to understand Joe better so as to better understand my reaction to the film. There is strong support but this is Ramsay and Phoenix’s film, the latter carrying it with a world-weary ease on his broad shoulders.

I also have to mention Jonny Greenwood’s score, which touches on the work of Vangelis and John Carpenter. I saw two films with Greenwood soundtracks last week, You Were Never Really Here & Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread. They couldn’t be more different, they couldn’t have been any better suited to each film, and they show that Greenwood is the most interesting musician working in film at the moment.

Here’s the trailer for You Were Never Really Here:

As we have seen in her previous work, Lynne Ramsay is a filmmaker who finds beauty in the most unlikely places, but this time she had really set herself a challenge. The fact she pulls it off with such aplomb is a reminder that we should treasure her and her films, and if they are to be years apart then so be it. Slowly, yet surely, she is creating a body of work which marks her as one of the greats. I can’t wait for what she does next, but I will if I have to and, as any Blue Nile obsessive will tell you, the wait makes it all the sweeter when it arrives.

Here is Lynne Ramsay talking to the Glasgow Film Festival, where the film had its premiere:

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