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Cannes review: You Were Never Really Here

The last competition film to screen this year at Cannes was Scottish director Lynne Ramsay’s YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE. Traditionally this time slot is considered to be a graveyard reserved for those titles who don’t have a realistic chance of winning prizes, if for no other reason than that most journalists would have left town by this point. There are exceptions to the rule, of course. Last year ELLE was given the honor of bowing last and we all know that movie went places. YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE is an entirely different beast but proves every bit as electrifying as the Verhoeven/Huppert banger.

We meet our guy Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) in the middle of a clean-up job at some dodgy hotel and find out soon after he’s someone you hire to rescue kidnapped targets. No coherent back story is ever provided as to who Joe was and what made him the gruff, emotionally withdrawn killing machine that he is. Joe’s latest assignment is to save 16-year-old Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov) from a sex trafficking ring that has connections in high places. As such, things go very wrong when Joe finds Nina and tries to bring her home.

Come to think of it, there isn’t much in the way of a plot, as the film’s detractors would argue. But this turns out to be one of its most striking, entrancing features. By leaving purposeful blanks to further strip a simplistic storyline of its narrative element, Ramsay put a distinct spin on the thriller genre that feels fresh, wild, brazenly visceral. With next to no exposition, you’re thrown into a void of clear and present danger, left to to figure out what the creepy inner count-downs mean, or those nightmarish cutaways of Joe suffocating in a plastic bag clasped around his head. It’s a cryptic, almost instinctive approach to describing the psyche of a damaged individual which doesn’t give you the answers but places you directly in a fragmented, slightly crazed state of mind.

Indeed, YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE eventually reveals itself to be as much an obscure character study as a badass action flick. What keeps this misanthropic killer going? Why would he throw himself in harm’s way for the sake of those he doesn’t even know? Does he feel remorse, gratification or professional numbness as he murders his way through the night to get the job done? The flashbacks and voice-overs, as well as Joe’s interaction with his aged mother, offer subtle, intimate clues. Phoenix brings his A-game here bringing the enigmatic anti-hero to life. In his by turns fearsomely assured and stunted, nearly timid demeanor one detects a mixture of silent rage and deadly calm. His witheringly intense eyes, which communicate both deep vulnerability and a touch of steely cruelty, beautifully capture someone marked by memories of trauma.

This is still very much Ramsay’s show, though. From the film’s mystifying, morbidly atmospheric opening on, you know you’re in the hands of a virtuoso. The sequence, composed of fast intercutting footage over Jonny Greenwood’s magnificently sleazy score, signals the pure musicality with which she would frame and cut a scene. And the hook is instant. For the rest of the movie, her choices will continue to surprise, be it the ultra-violent close-up shot of a head being blown up or the outright dreamy ambience created for some quieter moments. Overall, Ramsay keeps it brisk and brutal, putting her arthouse sensitivities to mesmerizing use in a theatrically heightened setting. She really directed the hell out of this thing.

As is the case with THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER, the hardcore nature of YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE may cloud its fate. But so what? The movie is an absolute riot and it proves unequivocally women can do genre just as well as men, if not better. Now it’s Almodóvar’s turn to give this talented filmmaker a more-than-deserved push.