3 1/2 (out of 4)
If you thought We Need to Talk About Kevin was a psychological marathon mindfuck, writer-director Lynne Ramsay’s violent, beautifully enigmatic neo-noir You Were Never Really Here somehow manages to be even more disorienting and fascinating whilst navigating a fairly straightforward thriller plot.
Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) is an ex-military gun for hire, doing jobs on the sly while he takes care of his elderly mother. A sucker for asphyxiating himself and prone to PTSD flashbacks and haunted memories of childhood trauma and past hits, Ramsay and Phoenix’s combined effort places us right in the shoes of a brutish outsider, whose next assignment is to rescue a Senator’s daughter sold into prostitution.
Even if you wanted to accuse You Were Never Really Here of being a work of style over substance, you’d be overlooking a lean, winding narrative, not to mention the film's perfection on so many technical levels. The film's entire sound design is a marvel of meticulously crafted ambiance. Jonny Greenwood’s lucid electronic soundtrack (reminiscent of Trent Reznor's effect on David Fincher’s recent output) is a welcome extension of original scoring beyond every Paul Thomas Anderson film since There Will Be Blood. In fact, Phoenix’s raw method acting is nearly as impressive as his work in The Master, and supported by Greenwood’s ethereal vibrations, YWNRH feels as close as we’ll get to a PTA horror film.
The sound editing and mixing become a symphony of Lynchian atmospherics when the score takes a break, and choice diegetic pop songs (Rosie & The Originals' "Angel Baby" specifically) paint purposeful swatches of irony and black humor on a film that largely radiates unsettling and chilling darkness. The cinematography, as well as the film’s perplexing structuring, obscures even the most easily explainable moments. This constant unease has you leaning into every stylistic change, soaking in all of Ramsay's unpredictable movements in conception.
Disquieting, densely puzzling and callously exhilarating, You Were Never Really Here made waves at last year's Cannes and the film's effect lives up to its reputation. Furthermore, as it is only her fourth feature in two decades, YWNRH cements Ramsay as a director worthy of close scrutiny.
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