Cannes 2017 review: You Were Never Really Here (Lynne Ramsay)

When the official selection of the festival was announced in April, it was clear that Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here was not ready yet. But, Thierry Fremaux assured us, what had been presented to the selection committee had already been special enough to justify a place in competition. A few weeks before the festival started, Ramsay was still shooting three scenes. The film was scheduled to open on the last competitive day on purpose, and the British director rushed through editing to deliver the film mere days before it unfolded.

Unfortunately, this rush to be ready in time shows. You Were Never Really Supposed To Be Here, quipped one critic on Twitter after the first press screening, and perhaps he was right. You Were Never Really Here, neither satisfying genre film nor insightful character study, is a hastily put together film that is clearly still a work in progress (Ramsay admitted as much in the film’s press conference, divulging that this was not the film’s final cut), and despite a solid performance by Joaquin Phoenix (who actually won the Best Actor award for this) and Ramsay’s strong visual flair, this is easily her least accomplished work.

As Joe, a stone-faced vigilante of few words, Phoenix creates a stoic, hulking figure of a man who is exorcising his demons through the saving of young girls, often from the underage sex industry. Joe’s only respite from the harsh, seedy underworld he spends most of his time in are the moments he can spend together with his elderly mother.  In those moments at home, the otherwise ruthlessly efficient man shows that he can smile, sing, and above all care about and connect to another human being. When he is contracted by a US senator to free his runaway daughter from a sex ring, it seems like just another job, but this assessment will prove to be a tremendous mistake.

As a character study, You Were Never Really Here is undercooked. Put together in scattershot flashbacks, the background story of Joe is one that is riddled with clichés: victim of an abusive and strict father, further trauma inflicted in Afghanistan, scarred by a human trafficking drama while working for the FBI, the brooding Joe is a walking poster boy for badly drawn characters. One of his favorite pastimes, shown both as a young boy as well as an adult, is sticking his head in a plastic bag, although it isn’t entirely clear if these are suicide attempts or Joe training himself to hold his breath for as long as possible to prepare for a late underwater scene. Ramsay paints in all-too-broad strokes here, not giving her audience nearly enough to build an attachment to the mumbling brute. The scenes with Joe’s mother are shorthand for “Look, he’s not all violence and ruggedness”, but they give us so little of either character that a shocking moment in the final act fails to elicit the hoped-for reaction. During the press conference, Ramsay admitted that she was still working on the script in between shooting, and the story would have benefitted from a few more drafts (how the jury could award it the Best Screenplay honor is a mystery) that would have fleshed out the character more.

As a vigilante genre film, You Were Never Really Here fails to excite due to the virtual absence of gripping edge-of-your-seat scenes. Basically, too little happens in the film to excite the audience, and for most of its running time the film is a rather dull affair. The film’s only moment of true brilliance, and the one moment where Ramsay’s visual talent truly shows, is the scene where Joe springs the young girl from a townhouse brothel. Shown almost entirely through CCTV footage, with a fragmented sound design and score as the scene jumps from camera to camera, viewpoint to viewpoint, the cold black-and-white images create palpable tension while also distancing the viewer enough to not let the bursts of Joe’s violence devolve into splatter territory. It is a breathtaking sequence, but coming at the halfway mark, the film deflates after this crescendo that the earlier scenes built up to. Everything coming after it, and even the blissfully short running time can’t prevent this. Although still a solid half hour, the remainder feels like a drawn-out epilogue that Ramsay seems to be doing on autopilot, so uninspired are the two actions scenes that come later in the film.

Meanwhile, Joaquin Phoenix as the almost somnambulant Joe seems to be just that: a sign that the actor can do a performance like this in his sleep. In a way, the shaggy dog character of Joe lies not that far from his similar PI character in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, but by virtue of a better film and more characterization, that character feels more alive than Joe. That isn’t to say that it isn’t a great performance, however studied, but it fails to elevate the film above its material.

Likewise, Jonny Greenwood’s score is quite fantastic on its own, its dissonances and the way it at times skips a beat a good approximation of Joe’s state of mind, and very effective in building up as much tension as the screenplay allows, but it can only take the story so far. All these elements of good filmmaking cannot salvage You Were Never Really Here from a weak screenplay that never seems to figure out where it wants to go. The end result is a bog standard thriller that has few highlights, and fails to elucidate exactly what it was that motivated Fremaux to put this in competition. In a similarly gritty ‘underbelly’ film, the Safdie brothers’ Good Time showed how you can energize your audience with this kind of tale, but You Were Never Really Here fails to follow suit: it is simply too uninspired to become enthusiastic about. There is a good film in there somewhere, but this rush job is unfortunately not that version.