You Were Never Really Here (2017)

You Were Never Really Here by Lynne Ramsay is a dark, disturbing odyssey into the mind of a brutal yet tender hitman.

Hammer Blow

by Alexa Dalby

You Were Never Really Here

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Joaquin Phoenix gives a typically powerful performance as Joe, a burly, bearded hitman who specialises in rescuing kidnap victims, but is tortured by painful, involuntary shards of flashbacks that mingle his time in the US army with abuse by his father when he was a child.

We see him cleaning a bloody hammer after one such brutal job before he returns home to tenderly care for his elderly mother (Judith Roberts). His next job is to find Nina (Katerina Samsonov), the blonde daughter of distraught Senator Votto (Alex Manette). She has disappeared but her father wants to avoid calling in the authorities because he is running for office. She’s being held in a brothel specialising in under-age girls. As Joe stalks its corridors in search of her, the narrative is told entirely though its fuzzy black and white security cameras, with the ironic Angel Baby as piped music overlaying it.

On his way there, he’s asked to take a photo of some young girl tourists in Times Square, an everyday, normal activity. He frames the shot with care, and yet one girl’s face as she poses shows a strange uneasiness. Perhaps he has an aura of menace that she picks up on.

For Joe, experienced as he is, his latest commission is a job that goes horribly wrong in ways that link it to a wider network of institutional and political corruption, with dire collateral damage for Joe’s associates. In one scene, Joe, unusually finds himself out of the inner city and walking through a sunlit wood. The contrast is like the release of a deep breath after you’ve been holding it for a long time and Joe, too, has a kind of rebirth and baptism. Another strange scene has Joe holding hands with a dying man as they mumble the words of a song.

It’s a filmmaker’s film, sprinkling dreamlike, subliminal images throughout a dark, violent and disturbing story told in flashes of lightning, that has the shocking power of a sledgehammer and an ultra-high body count, all held together with an extraordinary characterisation of few words by Phoenix as the tortured hitman who is not immune to the possibility of some kind of personal redemption.

You Were Never Really Here premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, where Lynne Ramsay won the Best Screenplay award and Joaquin Phoenix won the award for Best Actor, in the UK at the 61st BFI London Film Festival 2017 and is released on 9 March 2018 in the UK.

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