After a deafening soundscape of white noise screaming into the audience’s personal space, we get our first look at the Film. A man is breathing hard into a plastic bag. The camera is so close to his face it looks eerily like sculpture. He sadly moans as he rips the bag from his face. Next, a selection of short, sharp cuts highly focused on the objects in a made-up vermillion hotel room. A burning picture of a child. A necklace with the name ‘Sandy’. Some duct tape. A hammer with the blood being wiped off.

These are the first disturbing and ugly moments we spend with Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), with whom we shall spend the rest of this disturbing and ugly film.

In a film that explores the psyche of a suicidal, mentally scarred hitman, we should not be surprised of this. Though many thrillers approach a similar topic with a guilty pleasure in the thrilling side of things, Lynne Ramsey does not allow You Were Never Really Here to follow suit.

Five minutes later we’re in the cab with Joe, supposedly after a gruesome hit, when the cab driver seems to mouth the words of the movie as they flash up on the side of the screen. Now the double entendre becomes plain to see that Joe should be the silent killer, leaving no trace, but also the ghost of a person who cannot seem to find the will to live. The whole film, in fact, is focused not on his killings and at many points try’s to turn its head away, looking at them only in the corner of its eye. In one scene we watch Joe take on three men, only through the eye of the CCTV camera, in another we see him strangle a, but only through an overhead mirror.

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Instead, we are made constantly aware of Joe’s mind state.

Whether he is being attacked by post-traumatic flashbacks or preparing for his next ultraviolence, Phoenix finds it easy to arrest the audience in lavish grief and torturous pain. Ramsey does well in her visual storytelling as we see Joe look over a railway track and know what he must be thinking. Ramsey gives us a man and shows us him, she doesn’t tell us who he is or what he does. The element of exploration that is given to the viewer here is satisfying. Like a psychotherapist, we get to pore over Joe’s current destructivity in relation to his poor child life, his military career, the things he’s seen and the things he’s done. The film feels its way over the scars of its protagonist and touches his skin with soft hands.

Equally, as we see his ugliness, we see moments of normality, moments of compassion from Joe shine through. This is where the comparisons to Taxi Driver diverge. More like Léon: The Professional, finally, Joe will have a redeeming relationship with one of the children he rescues.

Unfortunately, Ekaterina Samsonov does not play out Nina to her fullest extent. The idea of Joe finding solace in a shared trauma is good, but at times Samsonov ends up feeling a little prop-ish. The touch between the two characters is never felt as deeply as it should, and as the greatest directors are capable of. At moments the spoken interaction also appears thin and unconvincing. The film doesn’t fall into the trap of asserting the flat idealism of the redeeming quality of children, a little more weight should have been given to Samsonov’s role.

Throughout the film, Jonny Greenwood's score shone. An impressive feat as this comes only months after another amazing, but markedly different score, Phantom Thread. Oscillating between a Hotline Miami pounding bassy throb, sure to get your heart going, and a really surprising organic sound of beauty, Greening highlighted the rare moments of beauty in the film incredibly. I had to stay until the end of the credits to catch the last of his music.

In the 90 minutes of hardness, only a handful of these moments offer a respite, but when they do it is emotionally affecting and beautifully powerful. We are reminded of Joe’s humanity as he sticks hid head out in the rain, waiting in the car to spy, or when he rubs Nina’s hair dry with a towel. You Were Never Really Here serves as an ultimately optimistic film, drenched in grime and dirt, that teaches us that even when we are seemingly drowning, there is something there we can swim for.

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