Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) has the unusual job of retrieving kidnapped girls from their kidnappers for a price. However, when one of his assignments doesn’t add up, Joe’s comfortable life and dangerous job suddenly collide.
Lynne Ramsay paints a hideously beautiful landscape for Joe to live in. He twists between the safety of his home and ailing mother and the cutthroat crime-filled world he works in. She portrays both sections of his life in stark contrast. The house is all sepia tones and blues. It had a sad melancholy to it of a life unlived whereas the crime-filled world is darker filled with strip lighting. Childish baby pinks and blues suddenly lose their innocence when paired with the seedy child smuggling underworld Joe battles with. Contrast this with black and white soundless CCTV footage and the unnervingly bright blood and the entire film is an uncomfortable, beautiful visual feast.
As we get into the main crux of the plot, everything gets all the more jarring. For a film with such a short runtime, it somehow manages to make itself the perfect length for the story. Yet somehow, the plot plays second fiddle to Phoenix who seamlessly turns the films thriller narrative into a portrait of a life breaking down. We get long carefully-crafted scenes of Joe becoming more on edge. One particularly well-crafted part is where listening to his mother locked in the bathroom he throws the knife he’s holding on the floor. It’s a shot that seamlessly puts both parts of his life and shows how there is no harmony between them.
What adds to that sense of unnerving that Ramsay cultivates is a near bizarre choice in music. The soundtrack for You Were Never Really Here is all over the place in a way that works perfectly and faultlessly to keep the viewer on the edge of their seat. Parts of the film feel a bit like Drive; this film is almost more shockingly beautiful and intense than Winding-Refn’s work. There are also major similarities to Luc Besson’s Leon: The Professional if not just for a fantastic performance from an up and coming child star.
You Were Never Really Here is both subtle and explosive as Joe can barely take what’s gone on. The sudden colour changes from a broody palette to a Wes Anderson style set of pastels paired with 1940’s music creates a dissonance that fits the film so perfectly.