They said you were brutal.
Director Lynne Ramsay tends not to deal in easy subject-matter. Her 1999 feature debut Ratcatcher observed the grimy experiences of a young boy in a poverty-stricken part of her native Glasgow. We Need To Talk About Kevin adapted the terrifying story of a psychopathic teenager and his mother's attempts to understand where her son went wrong. Now in You Were Never Really Here Ramsay puts her vivid stamp on another literary work - a dark crime novella concerning a vigilante-for-hire. The result is brutal at points, disturbing frequently and never less than fascinating.
Joaquin Phoenix plays Joe, a man working outside the law to rescue underage girls from sex rings. This he does with extreme prejudice; Joe is hired not only for retrieval, but for his ability to administer swift justice on the kidnappers. Living with his dementia-suffering mother, he is isolated from all other meaningful human contact, mentally wrestling with the life experiences that have turned him into this blunt instrument. He is unnervingly efficient at what he does, until one job turns out more complicated than anticipated, and his stripped-down life begins to implode.
This film is a tight collaboration between director and lead actor, Ramsay focusing at all points on Joe - his squalid present and the past that tortures him. As the hitman/rescuer Phoenix is a convincingly seedy mess - heavy-set with a beard even more tangled than his recent Jesus portrayal in Mary Magdalene. This is a shambling wreck of a human being, repellent and disturbing, yet still sympathetic in his quiet despair and moments of compassion. The objects of his violence may be more vile than he is, but Joe is a free-falling soul in need of salvation. His mumbling performance I'm ready to forgive more quickly than in Magdalene - Joe is no Jesus after all, and the degree to which Phoenix internalises and then embodies the character is formidable, not least in an unforgettable closing scene.
Ramsay's direction and screenplay are as key as the lead performance. Jarring and impressionistic, the movie provides glimpses of what has shaped and twisted Joe, as well as the mental storm through which he wades in order just to function. The storytelling is deliberately fractured and dialogue-light, with just enough hints sometimes to provide events with coherence. The violence is oblique rather than salaciously direct, with a result that is still chilling. And the whole thing is fuelled by Jonny Greenwood's score... So gorgeously lush in Phantom Thread, here his music is jangling and discordant, like all going on in Joe's life and mind. It fits perfectly with Ramsay's visuals, offering odd glimpses of compassion and hope amid the mayhem.
Fact is, you do ultimately care for Joe and hope that there is something redeemable in his damaged humanity. That's the big achievement here. Ramsay takes what could have been a generic crime tale and transforms it into a fragmented and disorienting character study - that ultimately resolves into something strangely moving.
Gut Reaction: Keen from the opening to fit together the jigsaw pieces of Joe's life, however unsettling the experience. Moved - and at one point angry enough to swear out loud.
Where Are the Women?: Judith Roberts is touching as Joe's mum, as is Ekaterina Samsonov as the girl he seeks to rescue. But the main female presence here is behind the camera. Lynne Ramsay knows how to create dark art.
Ed's Verdict: 7.5/10. Not an easy experience, nor is it meant to be. This is gritty, almost guerilla film-making, where you can see the craft in every scene. Real, and all the more powerful for it.