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Review: You Were Never Really Here is brutal unflinching revenge thriller

PUBLISHED: 12:22 09 March 2018 | UPDATED: 12:30 09 March 2018

Joaquin Phoenix as Joe and Ekaterina Samsonov as Nina Votto in You Were Never Really Here. Photo: Why Not Productions/StudioCanal/Alison Cohen Rosa

Joaquin Phoenix as Joe and Ekaterina Samsonov as Nina Votto in You Were Never Really Here. Photo: Why Not Productions/StudioCanal/Alison Cohen Rosa

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Based on Jonathan Ames’ novella of the same title, British director Lynne Ramsay’s film plumbs the murky depths of the human condition on the mean streets of modern-day New York with Joaquin Phoenix both fearless and, heartbreaking.

Joaquin Phoenix as Joe and Ekaterina Samsonov as Nina Votto in You Were Never Really Here. Photo: Why Not Productions/StudioCanal/Alison Cohen RosaJoaquin Phoenix as Joe and Ekaterina Samsonov as Nina Votto in You Were Never Really Here. Photo: Why Not Productions/StudioCanal/Alison Cohen Rosa

You Were Never Really Here (15)

****

In 1999, writer-director Lynne Ramsay made an auspicious feature film debut with Ratcatcher, an unsettling coming-of-age story set in 1970s Glasgow at the height of the dustmen’s strike.

Her bravura tale of innocence tainted by tragedy won numerous awards and anointed Ramsay as a distinctive new voice in the homegrown firmament.

While other filmmakers would have capitalised on this success by rushing headlong into a new project, Ramsay bided her time, seeking out challenging material that tapped into universal themes of grief and desperation.

In 2002, she delivered a stylish and emotionally raw adaptation of Alan Warner’s novel Morvern Callar and almost a decade later, she documented the aftermath of a senseless high school massacre from the perspective of the teenage perpetrator’s guilt-stricken mother in We Need To Talk About Kevin.

Joaquin Phoenix as Joe and Judith Roberts as his mother in You Were Never Really Here. Photo: Why Not Productions/StudioCanal/Alison Cohen RosaJoaquin Phoenix as Joe and Judith Roberts as his mother in You Were Never Really Here. Photo: Why Not Productions/StudioCanal/Alison Cohen Rosa

Thankfully, we have only had to wait six years for her fourth feature. Based on Jonathan Ames’ novella of the same title, You Were Never Really Here is a brutal and unflinching revenge thriller, which allows Ramsay to plumb the murky depths of the human condition on the mean streets of modern-day New York.

She conjures a nightmarish vision of exploitation and degradation behind closed doors that has us biting our nails down to the cuticles.

Traumatised war veteran Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) cares for his ailing mother (Judith Roberts) in his childhood home.

By day, he wrestles with an addiction to painkillers and dulls memories of the people he couldn’t save during his time working for the FBI by asphyxiating himself with plastic bags in his bedroom.

By night, Joe accepts hit man assignments from associate John McCleary (John Doman) to purge the city of corruption, evil and injustice.

Joe accepts a meeting with Senator Albert Votto (Alex Manette), whose teenage daughter Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov) is missing.

Joaquin Phoenix as Joe in You Were Never Really Here. Photo: Why Not Productions/StudioCanal/Alison Cohen RosaJoaquin Phoenix as Joe in You Were Never Really Here. Photo: Why Not Productions/StudioCanal/Alison Cohen Rosa

The politician has received a tip-off by text that his beautiful girl is a sex slave in a brothel located in the Kips Bay neighbourhood of Manhattan.

Votto is reluctant to involve the police because he is in the throes of an election campaign and any negative publicity could hurt him at the ballot box.

He offers Joe a large sum of money to rescue Nina and dole out suitable punishment to the brothel owners and clientele. “I want you to hurt them,” snarls Votto. “If she’s there I’ll get her,” promises Joe, who heads to the nearest hardware store to purchase a 16oz ball pein hammer and duct tape.

You Were Never Really Here is a masterclass in tightly coiled suspense. Phoenix delivers a fearless and, at times, heartbreaking performance as a broken man, whose quest for redemption seems to be leading him down the road to hell.

Ramsay captures her protagonist’s nightmarish and woozy odyssey in a clinical, unfussy manner that sends trickles of cold sweat down the spine.

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