Never Really Here – a review


A heavily bearded Joaquin Phoenix plays a troubled assassin

With accusations of invisible Russian assassins in the air it’s something of a coincidence we have one in the cinema, but he uses nothing more sophisticated than a blunt hammer and no sickle to the skull to do his dirty work.

To my mind Lynn Ramsay is a photographer not a dramatist, decent work fit for the small screen not the big screen. She’s a Scottish filmmaker who’s done better than most so duty calls. I paid £9 for an 85 minute film, only one hour fifteen minutes for a film so muddled and badly edited I wondered if she’d been present at its making.

At Cannes the film got a standing ovation and a drubbing. It was submitted to Cannes incomplete, selected, got edited for presentation, yet after a divisive reception Ramsay stated it was still not fully edited, which smacks of dissembling. That didn’t stop her winning Best Screenplay, and Phoenix Best Actor.

She has one theme she repeats in her films, an individual suffering internalised panic, guilt and pain looking for redemption and finding none. You Were Never Really Here is exactly that. Her latest is another adaptation, this one from the novella by Jonathan Ames about a hitman with a conscience.

The hit man is Joe, (Joachim Phoenix) gumshoe and Grim Reaper combined, although his detective work is limited to sitting moping in cars staring into the rear view mirror at his quarry. We don’t get to know his second name, symbolically Joe Public is his camouflage.

Joe the hitman is a troubled ex-soldier, quite why never revealed although we’re given subliminal flashbacks to Joe’s youth and a brutal father. This reduces his psychopathy to a common domestic situation that most of us who have suffered patriarchal bullying get over. If that is the core value of the novel it is trite.

He’s contracted to find Nina, (Ekaterina Samsonov) the 13-year-old abducted daughter of a gubernatorial candidate. The plot calls for her to be sexually underage. Samsonov looked at least 19 to me, but it is said girls mature earlier than boys. Thankfully, Ramsay keeps the exploitation scenes away from the graphic and leaves it to our imagination.

The villains are faceless organised sex trafficking gangs, their nationality kept obscure. Joe is sent for by her father and told to get the girl back. Quite why he and his new employer meet in the politician’s office is a mystery. Joe’s whole career depends on remaining inconspicuous. What about the politician’s secretary in the outer office, and the lift man, and the woman at the reception desk? Joe lives in a world without a single security camera. Remarkable.

The politician demands of Joe that he ‘harms’ the perpetrators.

Senator: “I hear you’re a man that can be brutal.”
Joe: (Excessively long pause – and a bit more) I can be.

In customary form Ramsay removes all verbal exposition reducing Joe to a monosyllabic shambles of a man, mumbling, eye rolling. fuzzy bearded and unkempt. He suffers – and us with him – from recurring bouts of chronic depression, feelings of suicide.

He dresses schleppy. Dressed in dirty overalls out to buy a pie at Greggs is all very well when trying to merge with the crowd, but I wondered how he gained access to elite society when commissioned for a hit that wasn’t down in the dregs of society, low end of town, and sure enough, finding Mr Big he changes to suit and tie.

The film should be renamed ‘Buckets of Blood’

The interesting psychology belongs to the men who indulge in child sex abuse. What warps their mind is what we need to know, and know how to cure it. How important it is to know what makes a professional hitman tick will depend on how much you enjoy this intense study of Joe’s intense inner turmoil. At the end of each slaying Joe is so shattered emotionally you’re certain he won’t recover to clean his teeth let alone carry out more dark deeds.

Halfway through the story – I find it hard to describe it as a drama – Joe is shot in the cheek. Bullet removed by his own dexterity – he loves pain – his face swells up. Phoenix sticks a potato in his mouth to ape the swelling. For the rest of the action we cannot make out a single sentence he speaks. I felt like shouting at the screen, “Get a voice box!”

The film is praised for its visual poetry. What I saw was a mismatch of styles and a lot of clichéd shots: Joe seen from a station platform a passing train between him and the camera; Joe walking this way and that in a busy street; Joe letting rain refresh his face; Joe framed in doorways, alleyways; windows; Joe doing a lot of standing motionless; Joe sinking slowly in deep water, illuminated by a shaft of light; Joe glum and glummer.

There are some odd, sub-Tarantino moments when two characters begin sharing the lyrics of a song in a moment of extremis. I just didn’t believe those dalliances one bit.

Johnny Greenwood’s score – of Radiohead lead guitarist fame – is unnerving, Psycho-like but because of the odd editing never seems to fall in the right place.

The film keeps getting tripped up by Ramsay’s search for the poetic image and when she finds it, boy does she milk it to death.


There’s lots of scenes Joe with his senile mother but for what purpose?

I see some reviews have the tagline – “successor to Taxi Driver”. Ramsay’s essay gets nowhere near Taxi Driver’s intellectual coherence. It has none of Scorsese’s delight in colloquial dialogue and laddite patter. It has no surprises.

This Ramsay film is just as bleak and simplistic as her others. It doesn’t have the visual poetry of Ratcatcher, or the social politics of Morven Caller, so my praise is muted.

Ramsay’s unwillingness to compromise artistically has often gotten her into trouble. Indeed, the last film she shot was over six years ago when she walked off the set, one presumes because the producer was getting in her way. “I have a reputation for being difficult” she says. “Well, it’s bullshit!” You can walk off a film during preproduction, but it is highly unprofessional to leave two days before the shoot, cast and crew in place.

Ramsay’s film brought the Cannes competition to a polarizing close. Some declared it a the tour de force; others hissed and booed as the lights came up, repelled by its gory nihilism. As I left the cinema in Edinburgh one man said “That was great!”, and one woman laughing said, “I was sooo bored!”

Consequently, I can guarantee this film will split opinion right down the middle.


Ramsay (in hat) Phoenix and crew cameraman check the takes

What impresses me is Ramsay’s intensity of purpose. She means every minute filmed. If only she’d allow someone else to write the screenplay, but I suspect she only feels secure if she’s written it. Ramsay introduces us to all-too-familiar ingredients: a troubled man, a missing girl, and an evil syndicate. To those she adds the old nightmare drive through New York’s red light district seen from inside a car. But it can’t be denied that Phoenix and Ramsay are made for each other.

I just don’t see the point of the film.

  • Star Rating: Three
  • Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Dante Pereira-Olson, Larry Canada
  • Director: Lynn Ramsay
  • Writer: Lynn Ramsay from the book by Jonathan Ames
  • Cinematographer: Thomas Townend
  • Composer: Jonny Greenwood
  • Rating: 15
  • Duration: 1 hour 15 minutes.
  • 5 plus: potential classic, innovative. 5: outstanding. 4: excellent. 3.5: excellent but flawed. 3: very good if formulaic. 2: straight to DVD. 1: crap; why did they bother?
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7 Responses to Never Really Here – a review

  1. Marconatrix says:

    “I just don’t see the point of the film”
    “I paid £9 for an 85 minute film”
    I think you’ve answered your own question, no?

  2. angusskye says:

    C’mon GB, tell us if you liked it. 🙂

  3. Grouse Beater says:

    It was a weird experience, particularly when the hype advertised “a great work of art”, and “another masterpiece from Ramsay”.

    I suppose you’d describe it as a chamber piece and in shape it reminded me of a film I loved about the making of a dictator. (I reviewed it here some months ago.) In that film we follow the young life of the budding psychopath finishing with his adoration by a crowd of political supporters.

    The narrative line taught a lot about how we shape future leaders, people who are charismatic but whose entire motivation is revenge on humankind. It was beautifully made and crafted. This was messy. This seemed to me an honest but misguided study of what makes a hitman tick and none of it ran true. I wanted it to succeed because she’s a Scot and Scots don’t get to make many of their own movies.

  4. Ratcatcher: ‘ach, we’re nae-good’..

  5. Mike K says:

    Sometimes GB’s reviews are better than the subject. “And why not”

  6. Grouse Beater says:

    Funnily enough I enjoyed ‘Ratcatcher’ in the main, it confirmed to me she has a photographer’s eye not a dramatist’s. I guess I’m well in the minority.

  7. Grouse Beater says:

    Thanks, Mike. I hope people who see the film will log in and tell us their opinion. (PS: Wonder how Arnold Brown is getting on these days. I knew him when he started and then lost contact.)

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