In the six years since her last feature, We Need to Talk About Kevin, which also premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, Lynne Ramsay seems to have come very close to figuring out a mode of experimental but psychologically lucid filmmaking that almost completely eluded her before. You Were Never Really Here, adapted from a Jonathan Ames novella of the same name, is every bit as oblique as its lengthy title makes it sound. It’s a character study conducted primarily through an aesthetic vision: Heavy-for-hire Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) stumbles through his daily existence in an expressionistic haze of prescription drugs and disturbed memories, his mind flashing on images of childhood abuse and former lives as a military soldier and an F.B.I. agent.
The only people Joe interacts with are his elderly, doddering mother (Judith Roberts) and an occupational middle-man, John McCleary (John Doman), who gets him his assignments from wealthy clients. Joe’s latest job is to rescue Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), the abducted daughter of New York Senator Votto (Alex Manette). He prepares for an assault on a heavily guarded apartment complex by psyching himself up in the mirror and by going on paranoid night drives, like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. He also tries his best to quell memories of other girls he’s failed to save, which makes this job feel personal.
Phoenix’s performance here is one of seemingly unassailable physicality; the actor has never looked so robust, at once muscular and just plain thick. At the same time, he projects an unmistakable interior fragility. Few concrete details are ultimately given about Joe’s past, as Ramsay often even chooses to elide his most gruesome acts of inflicted violence. But Phoenix’s pained facial expressions and daunting body language—in tandem with the Ramsay’s impeccable, if thoroughly unconventional, editing and montage—color the film’s negative space with various implied meanings. And rising above that impressionistic surface are galvanizing moments of levity and duress that reorganize the narrative around fresh emotional anchor points.
Joe is a quintessential wayward protagonist in the mold of Elliott Gould’s Philip Marlowe in The Long Goodbye or Phoenix’s own Larry “Doc” Sportello in Inherent Vice. The difference is that Ramsay has pared down even those sparse neo-noir plot beats to mere fragments—all splayed across a persistently unresolved narrative that represents an uncompromising approach to its genre. In its still slightly unfinished cut, You Were Never Really Here is also only about 85 minutes, making it the rare ambitious and messy film that’s also short and economical. Ramsay has simultaneously scaled back and stepped up her craft: Her filmmaking here is prone less to overblown visual metaphors, as it was in We Need to Talk About Kevin, and instead it only half-articulates its ideas, making it possibly the most thrillingly unclassifiable film to play at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.
The Cannes Film Festival runs from May 17—28.