Cannes 2017: Lynne Ramsay's 'You Were Never Really Here' is Superb
by Alex Billington
May 27, 2017
Cannes saved the best for last. Lynne Ramsay's new film You Were Never Really Here was the very last competition film to premiere at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival. Rumor is that this played last because she was finishing it within the last week and just barely got it ready in time for the festival. The good news is that this film is pretty much perfect as is, and I hope she doesn't change too much after the festival, because I really adore it. I went to see it twice during the festival because it's lean and mean and pretty much perfect, there's nothing she can cut from it, and everything about it is fantastic. Masterful filmmaking telling a story of a brutal, broken man who has a big heart. I wasn't expecting this film to be so damn good, but it really is.
You Were Never Really Here stars Joaquin Phoenix as a former marine with PTSD who now works as a "protector" and rescuer based out of New York City. He describes himself as a "hire-guy", essentially just a hired thug who, instead of killing people, is hired to rescue young girls who are captured or escape home. We don't learn much about his backstory aside from brief flashbacks throughout, but we do learn enough to know that he has severe PTSD and seems to completely desensitized to any violence. His weapon of choice is a hammer, as well as brute force, as he's a big burly guy with scars all over his body. He's hired for a job in New York City (where he lives with his aging mother) and everything seems to go fine at first, searching for a senator's daughter, right up until the handover and then it gets crazy. Turns out this job wasn't so simple.
This film can be described as Lynne Ramsay's remake of Taken, with a bit of a John Wick vibe as well, but it's not an action movie by any means. There are a couple of violent scenes, and there's plenty of gore, but everyone should be aware that this isn't an action movie and it has so much more to say about Phoenix's unique character and our society than anything else. Ramsay's style and impressive editing really makes the film sing, because she doesn't overstuff it with exposition or elaborate slow burn scenes. Instead, she cuts out all the fat and gives us the meat of the story, getting right down to it. You Were Never Really Here is a masterwork in terms of refined cinematic storytelling, relying on the concept that less is more, and we don't need to see everything to understand everything going on. But it's still emotionally resonant and captivating.
Aside from an exceptional lead performance by the always-impressive Joaquin Phoenix, who mostly keeps quiet and uses his hefty body to convey strength, there's plenty of other elements to this film that make it so strong. There's an outstanding score by Jonny Greenwood, as unique as expected from Greenwood. At times it's intense and builds tension, other times it's tender and alluring, being used only to enhance certain scenes and never to play to the audience. The cinematography by Thomas Townend isn't overly dramatic either, but does feel notable in that it's a key part of Ramsay's style. She cuts quick and moves from moment to moment only letting the camera linger briefly when necessary. All-in-all, there's so much to appreciate about this film beyond the script & style, and all of it works in harmony as the perfect cinematic experience.
Ramsay's You Were Never Really Here is the kind of film I was waiting for at Cannes this year, and even though it finally showed up at the end, it was worth the wait. Seeing this for a second time confirmed my feelings and I enjoyed it even more, as there's no time wasted and not a single scene that I want to skip past. Everything is important, and the results are worthy of the glowing praise it's receiving at the festival. This film also reminds me of Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive, which also premiered very late at the Cannes Film Festival in 2011, and although it's a completely different story from a different filmmaker, it's a superb film that I expect many cinephiles to be raving about for a long time. Lynne Ramsay is back and better than ever.
Alex's Cannes 2017 Rating: 9.9 out of 10
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