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D: Lynne Ramsay / 95m

Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Judith Roberts, Ekaterina Samsonov, Alex Manette, John Doman, Alessandro Nivola

A funny thing happened on the way from the Cannes Film Festival…

At Cannes this year, Lynne Ramsay’s latest feature, an adaptation of the novella of the same name by Jonathan Ames, won a joint best screenplay award (tying with The Killing of a Sacred Deer), and the best actor award for Joaquin Phoenix’s performance as Joe, an ex-Marine working “undercover of the law” rescuing young girls from the sex trade. The movie was greeted with widespread critical acclaim, received a seven-minute standing ovation from its premiere audience, and was believed to be a strong contender for the Palme d’Or (though it lost out to Ruben Östlund’s The Square). Since then it has appeared at four further festivals before arriving at the BFI London Film Festival where it was shown three times.

At the second of its screenings in London, Ramsay was in attendance to introduce the movie. Within moments of coming out on stage she advised the audience not to hang around for the Q&A afterwards as she hated them. When pressed to answer a couple of questions there and then, Ramsay demurred to the point where the member of the BFI team who was on stage with her, realised that Ramsay wasn’t going to “play ball”, and somewhat embarrassingly, they left the stage and the movie began. Ninety-five minutes later the movie ended, and many in the audience waited for the Q&A to begin. It didn’t. Ramsay never came back out, and no one from the BFI clarified the situation. Having seen the movie, quite a few people in the audience felt they knew why Ramsay didn’t want to discuss her new movie.

First and foremost, You Were Never Really Here is a movie that invites a lot of scrutiny. It deals with themes surrounding the nature of violence, has a stripped back approach to the narrative, paints an austere portrait of a man who battles with his own demons to little avail, is uncompromising in its depiction of the aftermath of extreme violence (though it’s very fuzzy on the actual violence itself), operates within a noir-ish version of New York City, and features exemplary cinematography from Thomas Townend. It’s a movie that looks and feels important, a movie that wants to be taken seriously, and that appears to have something to say about the darkness within us and how, through the character of Joe, we can both explore and deny that darkness. In short, it’s a movie that looks to carry weight and meaning.

But here’s the odd thing: along with Phoenix’s tortured, semi-burnt out portrayal, and another impressive score from Jonny Greenwood, the movie has a lot of very good things going for it. And yet, as a whole, it doesn’t work. So many of the elements that go to make up the movie – Joe Bini’s editing, Tim Grimes’ production design, for example – are so good, so well executed, that it would seem that the movie can’t be anything other than hugely successful on its own terms. How could it not be? And yet, it’s not Ramsay’s best movie, not by a very wide margin. That honour belongs to Ratcatcher (1999). In the end, and despite all the effort put in by all concerned, You Were Never Really Here doesn’t match the potential all those disparate elements should do when they’re all combined. It’s a movie that isn’t the sum of all its parts.

Ultimately, the movie is one to admire for the way it tells its story rather than the response it provokes in its audience (which is muted to say the least). Technically well made, and with fine performances from all concerned (except for Nivola, whose appearance amounts to a cameo), Ramsay’s adaptation is hard to get involved with. There’s no sense of danger about what Joe does because he seems indestructible. At the beginning he’s attacked from behind by a man with a length of pipe. But Joe shrugs off the blow, head-butts his assailant who falls to the ground, and then he walks off as if it’s all part of his daily routine. But while it tells us that Joe is inured to the violent world he lives in, it makes the viewer inured as well. If it doesn’t mean anything to Joe, then why should it mean anything to us? It’s also no surprise that Joe has an elderly mother (Roberts) whom he looks after, but even their relationship doesn’t resonate in the way Ramsay might want it to. And then there’s Joe’s childhood, a period we see glimpses of, and which should invite the audience’s sympathy, but which remain violent additions to an already violent story, and as such, don’t have the power they’re meant to.

The movie’s basic storyline is also one that feels undercooked, with its political corruption and sex trade background something that we’ve seen countless times before. Ramsay works hard to make this section of the movie thrilling, and helped by Bini’s considerable editing skills she almost pulls it off, but the decision to obscure the violent acts taking place and to disallow any cathartic expression in either Joe or the viewer makes these violent outbursts triumphs of style instead of emotion. You can admire the way they’ve been shot and assembled, but they don’t evoke any feelings the viewer can experience for themselves. Ramsay keeps everyone, even her characters, at a remove, and closes out the movie with a moment of such extreme nihilism that it literally feels shoehorned in to provoke a response when none is actually needed. And that response? Just one of bafflement, which is not a response any movie maker should be looking for.

Rating: 7/10 – having surrounded herself with a cast and crew all working flat out to make the best movie they can, director Lynne Ramsay fails to put their efforts to practical good use, and leaves You Were Never Really Here feeling like an abandoned first cut; a movie that is likely to provoke serious debate over its merits for quite some time to come, it’s perhaps best described as an experiment that needed more time to be completed before any results could be unveiled.