YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE is a film all about violence. Violence in various forms being enacted in the present, people for whom the violence of the past has shaped who they are, haunting their existence. The impact of violence is felt constantly, and yet we see surprisingly little actual violence onscreen. We see plenty of its aftermath, the damage left behind, but we frequently cut away from the action itself, or it occurs off-screen entirely. It's like Ramsay is consciously stripping away any opportunity for the audience to inject any kind of dark wish fulfilment into Joe's brutality, leaving us instead with only the consequences. And constantly, at each stage of the story, we as viewers are wrong-footed, robbed of the standard easy redemptive or cathartic moments associated with such violent narratives.
Initially, I struggled to get into the film. The pace was slowed way down, getting into the minutiae of Joe's alive away from his violent vocation, seeing how he cares for his mother and wrestles with his own self-loathing impulses. The actual nature of his work, what would be the focal point of most films of this nature, is kept deliberately distant and opaque, with us easing back into it with an eerily un-dramatic, workmanlike approach. But when things do get going, it takes off in pulse-pounding fashion, with a sense of menace and threat that borders on the physically stressful to watch. This is an effect enhances by the souped up sound mix and an evocative score from Johnny Greenwood.
And the titanic presence at the centre of it all is Joaquín Phoenix. And if is a PRESENCE he brings, not just in terms of the raw exposed nerve of a performance, but in sheer physical mass. With the weight he's put on, he's this imposing block of meat. With his heavy, pounding walk, each footstep reverberates, you can just imagine your blood running cold if Joe was shuffling towards you. And though his backstory is deliberately fragmented, he still carries the pain of it all in his face and in his body. It's a harrowing depiction of a thoroughly broken man.
YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE is not an easy watch. Much like Lynne Ramsay's previous effort, WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN, it is designed to produce maximum discomfort and distress in the viewer. But stick with it, and you'll find a quietly gripping narrative with a powerhouse performance driving it.