Often before seeing a movie, I like to take a look at the runtime, just so I know what to expect. The runtime can really tell you quite a lot about what a movie wants to be. If you get something over 2 and a half hours, clearly it wants to be a sort of sprawling epic. If you get something that clocks in under 2 hours, generally it knows what story it wants to tell and feels no need to stretch things out. So when I took a look to see what Lynne Ramsay's You Were Never Really Here clocked in at, I was surprised to see 89 minutes as the listed run time. Under 90 minutes was not what I was expecting to see, and I wasn't sure exactly what information to draw from that. What kind of deeply moving, emotional story could be told in such a short amount of time? As it turns out, the short runtime is perhaps the biggest indicator of where the film's most obvious strengths lie. You Were Never Really Here is a perfectly crafted movie, that at all times knows exactly what it's doing and feels no need to do anything more. Not a single second of this tight, brutal thriller is wasted.
If you've seen the poster for You Were Never Really Here, you'll note that Joe, Joaquin Phoenix's character, is front and center. This imagery is appropriate, as Joaquin himself looms over this entire film. In fact, it wouldn't be too much of a stretch to say that this movie is almost entirely him. There is a plot here obviously, with Joe being a veteran-turned-hired-gun who gets embroiled in a violent conspiracy, but more than anything else this is an incredibly focused character study. So much screentime is given solely to Joe, with the perspective only switching to another characters a single time that I can remember. The camera is always, always focused on him, following his gaze, illustrating his thoughts. This movie is very deeply about the character of Joe and the fragility of his mind, and Joaquin is an absolute force of nature in this role, fully immersing himself into Joe and his mindset. Though it's a very different role, watching Phoenix here felt like watching Daniel Day-Lewis in Phantom Thread, just due to how he is so dedicated, so singular in his concentration that he makes the part his own. Every gesture, every twitch, very step, all of it is in service of the character. His performance is partially the reason why we're able to so quickly make such an emotional connection to Joe despite the short running time, which is why You Were Never Really Here is able to deliver on it's promises so quickly and so effectively.
While Phoenix's performance is no doubt the core of this entire film, Ramsay's direction and the editing choices made here are what shapes the viewer's experience. We see violence not only in Joe's actions, but in Joe's mind, told through sudden, extremely brief flashbacks, and jumps forward and backward in time that make it seem like everything is extremely compressed. Mental breakdowns are conveyed via quick, frequent, frenetic cuts between events, sometimes giving no explanation of what we're seeing. This is, I imagine, meant to put us in the perspective of Joe, where we experience the chaos that is in his head. We can make no sense of what we're seeing, just like Joe. The editing also further serves this purpose by doing something that I haven't noticed many reviews comment on, and that's the fact that despite this being an incredibly violent film, we don't really see a good portion of the violence. Even when Joe is attacking someone, we either see it from a distance, or it cuts away right at the moment of impact, and the next thing we see is the body on the floor. That's most of what we see, is bodies. Most of the time what we as the audience are shown is the aftermath of violence, not the violence itself. The most disturbing parts of the movie are when Joe finds someone's body, which happens at least 3 times. When someone is being shot, or stabbed, or beaten to death, the thing that the film emphasizes is not the violence itself, but the result of said violence. I think that this is a very intentional choice by the Ramsay, I think that she wanted to make sure that the viewer was concentrating on the right thing. By not making drawn out scenes of "cool" action/violence, and by not showing most of it at all, to me she's trying to emphasize the incredibly dark side of Joe's actions. Through direct or indirect action, he is the cause of so many deaths, and by focusing on the deaths themselves and not the action that causes them, it generates a much deeper emotional impact. The way the movie uses faux-surveillance type footage as well seems to reflect how Joe distances himself from the violent acts he commits, while the discovery of bodies always follows his perspective directly, showing how personal these moment are. It truly is the little things when it comes to direction that influences the audience in ways that they don't consciously notice.
I also have to take note of the absolutely fantastic score by the ever talented Johnny Greenwood. His Phantom Thread score is one that I actually listen to in my free time now, and when I saw that he was the composer for this film I was elated. It's very different than the layered, sensual compositions of Phantom Thread. Here, the music is as violent as Joe is. It switches back and forth between cool, deep, rhythmically discomforting synths, and loud, screeching, chaotic strings. The synths usually play over moment of quiet and introspection for Joe, usually signifying his calm or thoughtful moments (or his version of them), and the strings strike suddenly in moments of pain, confusion, or panic. More than once the sudden onslaught of high-pitched violin caused me to jump a bit in my seat, as Joe's mind began to reel and collapse in panic or terror. The overall sound design of this film, including the soundtrack, is I imagine meant to take us into Joe's head. One moment that really stood out to me was when Joe was in the city on his way to one of his contacts, and the sounds of traffic and of the train were outrageously loud, almost deafeningly so. Obviously, the sound of traffic is not actually as loud as this, but what I took it as, was the experience going on in Joe's head. Joe's disdain for his environment was not necessarily reflected in his face, but from the way he processes the sound of traffic, you can tell it's disturbing him. He doesn't do well with people, especially crowds of people. The busy life of the city is alien and painful for him, so the way we as the audience experience it reflects his own. For a movie that is, as I said, a very personal character study, this way of using sound design plus the wonderful soundtrack is an excellent way of drawing the audience even more into the main character's world.
You Were Never Really Here is the Lynne Ramsay answer to the action-obsessed audiences of today. The tight, finely-tuned nature of this movie manages to hone in on a wavelength of truly brutal violence that should disturb even the most desensitized viewer. It is an exercise in sparsity, proving that in the hands of a truly talented film-maker, no running time is too short to tell a story that will echo through the viewer's head for weeks. No matter the message that Ramsay was truly striving for, the film is a masterpiece. The performances, the direction, the composition and editing, all of it has been put together to form an experience that should show everyone that Lynne Ramsay is one of the best working filmmakers today.