Cultural Bulletin
Cultural Bulletin is a quarterly magazine that provides an international view of creative work. We look to film, music, design and art as signifiers of our cultural moment.

In Review: You Were Never Really Here

Director: Lynne Ramsey


Highly Recommended

Do you remember the scene with the lychee?

If you saw Lynne Ramsey’s We Need To Talk About Kevin, then you’ll know the exact lychee in question. It’s a lychee that’s rather hard to forget. In fact, for all the horrors that play out in her adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s school-massacre based novel, this scene is the most grotesque. It’s a scene that stays with you because, the butchering of this innocent lychee aside, there is no violence.

In her latest feature, You Were Never Really Here (based on a short story by Jonathan Ames), Ramsey masterfully reasserts her ability to create horrific and damaging images in our mind without actually showing them. This time, the subject matter is just as dark as her previous film. We have Joe (Joaquin Phoenix): a hitman with a dark past who suffers from PTSD. When being hired for his latest job - to find and rescue an abducted Senator’s daughter from a paedophile ring - he is told that he was chosen because of his ability to be brutal.

Ramsey has said that she intended the story to be similar to that of Lazarus: ‘a guy that comes back to life.’ And it’s here that she focuses most of her attention throughout the slender 90 minute running time. She wrote the screenplay with Phoenix in mind and has also spoken about how, when he committed to the role, he was able to bring added authenticity to Joe. He apparently did away with latex gloves that Joe was originally going to wear and refrained from using gadgets - moves that have certainly paid off.

Phoenix is superb - he won a deserved Best Actor at Cannes for his work. His performance is remarkably physical and we spend a considerable amount of time looking at his body: he has beefed up, bearded up and is covered in scars from his past. Added to this, his ability to exhibit torment and anguish is disturbingly believable. It is reminiscent of his remarkable portrayal of Freddy Quell in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master and when you put these two performances next to each other, it’s hard to argue against him being one of the finest and most interesting actors of his generation.

It’s becoming a foregone conclusion that if Jonny Greenwood has created a soundtrack for a film, it will be discussed in the reviews that follow it. Is this because he is in one of the most critically acclaimed bands of all time? Or is it because he’s a genuinely talented film composer? It’s certainly the latter. For some of the film, Greenwood opts for harsh strings to turn up the sense of unease (see There Will Be Blood as another sublime example of this). He balances this with more up-tempo synth and drum sections that click in as Joe moves between the action - it works excellently in the context of a modern noir.

In the final act of the film, the story is told almost completely without dialogue, allowing Ramsey to build towards the climax and for the viewer to find meaning within the nuances of Phoenix's visceral performance. It’s a fresh and welcome antidote to the world of over-explained, conveyor belt thrillers. The film leaves you hoping that the trio behind the direction, acting and soundtrack will, at some point, recombine their exceptional talents and produce something as artfully crafted again. TS