One of the most indelible moments of cinema this year is surely the CCTV image of Joaquin Phoenix chasing a naked man out of a bedroom and smashing him to a pulp with a hammer. That's roughly the tone of Lynne Ramsay's noirish dream of a thriller, based on a story by Jonathan Ames. This is 85 scorching minutes of shocking violence and visual poetry that prove the importance of quality over quantity.
Phoenix plays Joe, a middle-aged hitman who lives with his mother. He gets a job offer from Senator Albert Votto (Alex Manette), a single father whose underage daughter, Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), has gone missing but whom he knows, thanks to an anonymous tip-off, is being sexually exploited. “I want you to hurt them,” the Senator matter-of-factly instructs Joe, “McCleary said you were brutal.” “I can be,” murmurs Joe, such is the terse brilliance of Ramsay's taut screenplay. However, it becomes quickly apparent that this job isn't as cut-and-dry as it seems.
The film premièred at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won awards for Ramsay’s screenplay and Phoenix's powerhouse performance. As an actor, he has a wonderful sense of deadpan comedy. Here, as in Paul Thomas Anderson's extraordinary The Master, he manages to combine that comedy with an air of unpredictability and danger, but to very different effect. He is a brilliant physical performer, and the simple image of him walking through a garden carrying, yep, a hammer is enough to elicit nervous laughter. He has an astonishing ability to make a character truly three-dimensional and utterly human.
For a film that seems to draw to a large extent on Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver, You Were Never Really Here stands up to the comparison. I was also reminded of the Coens’ No Country for Old Men and Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin. What's striking is how well-told the story is, with Ramsay giving us a masterclass in visual exposition. She is more concerned with the repercussions of violence than the act itself and most of it occurs off-screen, often masterfully alluded to in a single edit by Joe Bini. There are moments of ethereal beauty as well as nightmarish horror, thanks in part to cinematographer Tom Townend and composer Jonny Greenwood. The Radiohead guitarist, now a key Paul Thomas Anderson collaborator, is proving to be one of the most original and exciting musicians in cinema. His score combines a strange but wonderful lyricism (that wouldn't sound out of place on Radiohead's 2007 album In Rainbows) with dark, pulsing electronica.
I can't recommend You Were Never Really Here highly enough. It perhaps isn't for the faint of heart, but Ramsay exhibits the kind of filmmaking that makes you want to shout from the rooftops. Phoenix's performance cements him as one of the most important actors of his generation. Jonny Greenwood is a genius. You'll never look at a hammer in quite the same way again.
Words by Logan Jones