You Were Never Really Here (5 stars)

You Were Never Really Here

Cannes 2017: Lynne Ramsay and Joaquin Phoenix join forces with riveting results

Jonny Greenwood's threatening electronic score breathlessly pursues a troubled figure in Lynne Ramsay's tender and savage reworking of the revenge thriller, based on a novella by Jonathan Ames. Ramsay's first feature since 2011's We Need to Talk About Kevin is a doozy, a double Cannes prize-winner focusing on a world-weary anti-hero whose shattered humanity is clinging on for dear life.

Joaquin Phoenix's hulking and intimidating physique fills the claustrophobic hotel and motel corridors he roams after completing his violent missions. He plays Joe, a gun for hire who has a reputation for being particularly brutal, his weapon of choice: a hammer. Though Joe lays down horrific carnage in his quest to retrieve a young girl from a sex trafficking ring it is the ferocious beast of trauma, stalking him every minute of the day, that proves to be the most terrifying aspect of this noir.

Joe's abusive childhood and service in the Marines and FBI has left him severely scarred. He swallows his pain via prescription pills and asphyxiation rituals and cares deeply for his elderly mother (a wonderful Judith Roberts) who we first meet watching Hitchcock's Psycho. The pair share a laugh about the famous stabbing scene, and it is from there on in that the blackly funny yet knotty tone is set. This isn't a film about killing, its focus is firmly on Joe's mental state and how he has come to this point. Glimpses of his past thump around his head and wallop the viewer with insights into his detached and anguished state of being.

Ramsay has pulled off the extraordinary, crafting a muscular and tightly wound masterpiece that ripples with a haunting complexity and features an intensely riveting performance from Phoenix. It's a crushingly sad and daringly outré lament for lives that have been gripped and held down by the wretchedness of violence, a film that's hugely accomplished in its execution.

Screening as part of the Cannes Film Festival 2017. General release TBC.

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