YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE directed by Lynne Ramsey (USA, 2018)

you_were_never_really_hereThis breathtaking and riveting film is based on a novella of the same name by Jonathan Ames. As the title suggests, it is the story of a man (Joe) deep in the throes of an existential crisis.

We see him hovering on a train platform evidently contemplating suicide and in a very real sense he is already half-dead inside. Ramsey described Joe as “a ghost in his own life”.

For this challenging role, Joaquin Phoenix has beefed himself up on his vegan diet to make him look more monstrous and threatening. But he is no murderous villain; he may be schooled in the ways of violence but he shows a gentle side in caring for his mother and in the tenderness he shows towards victims of abuse.

The city (New York) is represented as an ominous and alienating environment that encourages the viewer to identify and empathise with Joe’s isolation and apartness. Neon visions are enhanced by a thunderously effective soundtrack; another work of genius by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood. The orchestral moments are like a post-modern version of Bernard Hermann’s score for Psycho.

Joe’s weapon of choice is the kind of hammer you can pick up at any hardware store. He uses this with brutal efficiency as he despatches the monsters engaged in the seedy business of human trafficking and child prostitution.

As a hired gun (hired hammer?) violence is a central element of the movie but not gratuitously so. You never lose sight of the fact that this is, above all, a character study in the same way Travis Buckle was in Taxi Driver. As with Scorsese’s masterpiece, there’s a searing intensity to the central performance.

In Italy, the movie has been released as ‘A Beautiful Day’. Although named after one of the film’s key lines, this title could only have been chosen by someone with a taste for heavy irony given the film’s bleak and disturbing subject matter.

Lynne Ramsey chooses her projects with care and this is only her fourth movie. With her it’s a case of quality over quantity and if there was any justice in the world, this latest offering would place her on a pedestal beside single-minded directors like Stanley Kubrick, David Lynch or Terrence Malick.

Like these luminaries, she thinks in visual terms and it’s the images that strike deep rather than the dialogue. These all combine to make this film a memorable cinematic experience to savor and celebrate.