'You Were Never Really Here' vaults to the front of the Palme d'Or race

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You Were Never Really Here (2017) -- Pictured: Joaquin Phoenix CR: Cannes Press
Credit: Alison Cohen Rosa/Amazon Studios

The 2017 Cannes competition is ending with a jolt of auteur-fueled adrenaline.

Lynne Ramsay, the last of this year’s main slate of filmmakers to debut her work on the Croisette, has riled critics in the final stretch of this year’s race, entering a solid bid not only for herself to win the Best Director prize, but also for her lead actor, Joaquin Phoenix, to take Best Actor; or, judging by the picture’s enthusiastic reception, we might even be looking at a late-breaking Palme d’Or winner.

“A film of prismatic brilliance, in which scenes play like short films, single images convey the information of entire scenes, and quasi-subliminal edits create psychology as raw as an open wound (and there are plenty of those too), this 85-minute-long movie is the cinematic equivalent of finding the ocean in a drop of water,” Jessica Kiang writes for The Playlist. “You Were Never Really Here cannot be described as ‘arthouse goes genre’ because from Ramsay’s vantage point, so stratospherically far above the majority of mere mortal filmmakers, those distinctions don’t exist. There is just cinema of the purest, most energizing kind.”

The film — starring Phoenix as Joe, a war veteran and ex-FBI agent whose attempt to save a young girl from a sex trafficking ring goes awry — is Ramsay’s first feature since helming the stunning 2011 drama We Need to Talk About Kevin, and her big screen return (based on Jonathan Ames’ novella of the same name) is being hailed as perhaps her best work yet, despite initial reports that the film itself was not ready to be shown in its entirety (post-production is not 100 percent complete, according to sources at Cannes).

“Lynne Ramsay’s portrait of a damaged private contractor is both daring and sickening, bringing to mind Taxi Driver and its notorious antihero,” The Guardian‘s Peter Bradshaw observes. “Another type of film might have attempted to widen and straighten the material into a conventional political conspiracy thriller about a low-level tough guy out of his depth, almost like something by John Grisham. This is very much not what Ramsay is doing with this film, which gives us only an iceberg-tip of the dirty dealings which compose its outer plot structure and is more interested in the abused and damaged state of a guy whose life and mind have been stripmined by the violence he has seen and perpetrated, and by his muddled, Travis-like conviction that some kind of rescue for himself and other people could be possible.”

IndieWire’s David Ehrlich likens the film to “an art house Taken,” while Variety‘s Guy Lodge gives a similarly enthusiastic review, noting it “isn’t the genre crossover effort Ramsay’s admirers may have feared, or possibly even have wished for. Rather, it’s a kind of arthouse signal flare, reminding the industry of perhaps its greatest working filmmaker not to work often enough.”

He goes on to praise the synergy of Ramsay’s vision and Phoenix’s performance.

“The minimalism of the material [provides] the cleanest of canvases for the matchless technique of director and star alike…Resisting the obvious temptation to play Joe simply as stoically hardened, Phoenix revels in taut, twitchy details of body language, while Ramsay contributes her own eccentric, sometimes hilarious inversions of the hardman archetype,” he writes.

Kiang, alongside a majority of other critics, agrees: “Joaquin Phoenix (once again) turns in an effortlessly magnetic performance… But Phoenix’s turn, despite its semi-archetypal nature, is all about nuance: he is as convincing singing under his breath with his aged mother while they clean cutlery in the living room, as he is administering a chokehold, or getting spattered with blood after one of the film’s gunshots — possibly the loudest and most startling gunshots in recent memory — pulverizes some guy’s head.”

With Ramsay’s latest closing the 2017 competition, her chances at nabbing a major prize undoubtedly increase; leaving the jury with a fresh and, by all accounts, impactful impression typically bodes well for Cannes award winners.

Phoenix, though heralded as one of You Were Never Really Here‘s strongest elements, lands among an already crowded crop of contenders for the Best Actor trophy, as Louis Garrel (Redoubtable), Colin Farrell (The Beguiled and The Killing of a Sacred Deer), Robert Pattinson (Good Time), and Nahuel Pérez Biscayart (120 Beats Per Minute) have each earned standout notices from critics — though it’s Adam Sandler, who’s earning some of the best reviews of his career for his leading role in Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Redacted), who seemed to occupy frontrunner status until Phoenix came along.

If she wins the Palme d’Or with You Were Never Really Here, Ramsay will become only the second female filmmaker in Cannes history to have earned the festival’s top award. Jane Campion, who also premiered the second season of her crime mystery TV series Top of the Lake at this year’s event, previously won for her 1993 film The Piano, though she shared the prize with Farewell My Concubine helmer Chen Kaige. Two other women — Blue Is the Warmest Color actors Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux — won the Palme in 2013, when jury president Steven Spielberg made the unorthodox decision to bestow the award to the film’s lead actresses in addition to director Abdellatif Kechiche.

Check out more reactions to You Were Never Really Here below.

Jessica Kiang (The Playlist)
“Ramsay has made a film that burns so much brighter and cuts so much deeper than any such story has a right to. Do you remember the first time you saw Taxi Driver?… From the minute detail to the semi-biblical finale in which Joe’s demons, real, remembered and imagined are glimpsed in quick succession in a large mansion (my father’s house has many rooms) Ramsay has made something extraordinary, a film that’s both cruel and compassionate, all composed of quick slivers of insight about how childhood terror can be twisted up with adult compulsion. Because of Ratcatcher, Morvern Callar and We Need To Talk About Kevin, we have always been there for Ramsay, wherever “there” has been. But we were never really here before, and now that we are, one simple request: Can Lynne Ramsay please direct all the movies from now on, forever?”

Guy Lodge (Variety)
“Ramsay has made more sensually rapturous films, but this may be her most formally exacting: No shot or cut here is idle or extraneous. Townend’s calm, crisp camerawork finds rich texture and contrast in seemingly ordinary images, whether it’s a ribbon of shadow skipping across a shoulder blade as it tenses, or the velvety billowing of a garbage bag under water. Bini’s editing, seamlessly blending timelines and points of view in blink-of-an-eye strokes, gives the film the rhythm of a short fuse on a slow burn. Greenwood’s mesmerizing supporting character of a score, meanwhile, perhaps even outdoes his Paul Thomas Anderson collaborations for its instrumental range and bravado, careering from screaming strings to the discordant strum of a guitar with what sounds like a couple of snapped strings. In a Lynne Ramsay film, even the off-key elements are perfectly chosen; an exquisite, anxious study in damage, You Were Never Really Here knows exactly the value of its scars.”

Peter Bradshaw (The Guardian)
“The ghost of Travis Bickle haunts this nightmarish and humidly absorbing psychological drama from Lynne Ramsay, featuring an eerie, jangling musical score by Jonny Greenwood and starring a slab-like and bearded Joaquin Phoenix; it is adapted by Ramsay from the 2013 story from American author Jonathan Ames. There has been much talk here in Cannes about how the director has been working on this movie right up until the lowering of the house lights, and that it is still not finished. Yet for me it is the very unfinishedness that is daring: a piercing glimpse of some larger obscenity.”

Guy Lodge (Variety)
“Some filmmakers rust during periods of inactivity; Lynne Ramsay arches and tenses, lying in wait like an attack dog. And attack she does, though not in all the expected ways, in her astonishing fourth feature “You Were Never Really Here,” a stark, sinewy, slashed-to-the-bone hitman thriller far more concerned with the man than the hit. Working from a pulp-fiction source that another director might have fashioned into a “Taken” knockoff, Ramsay instead strips the classically botched job at the story’s core down to its barest, bloodiest necessities, lingering far more lavishly on the unspoken emotions rippling across leading man Joaquin Phoenix’s face, and the internal lacerations of trauma and abuse they cumulatively reveal.”

John Bleasdale (Cinevue)
“Over the years, Phoenix has given us some of the most memorable portraits of dark flawed men from Commodus to Johnny Cash. Here, he is excellent, utterly convincing as a man who has been hammered by the world and so has decided to hammer it back. An adaptation of Jonathan Ames’ novella, Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here escapes the pastiche of the original and creates something tough and noirish. The superb soundtrack by Jonny Greenwood is aural PTSD at times, while allowing for interludes of almost peace.”

Ben Croll (The Wrap)
“More of a collection of accomplished filmmaking moments than a wholly satisfying film, You Were Never Really Here offers an unfamiliar spin on a well-known style. Adapting Jonathan Ames’ 2013 novella that itself was a sideways riff on the hardboiled detective genre, writer/director Lynne Ramsay picks up Ames’ slanted approach and moves it even further afield. Instead of subverting hardboiled structure – where a jaded old timer accepts a seemingly open and shut case, only to be ensnared in a wider web of corruption – Ramsay readily accepts it, but tells the recognizable tale with terse abstraction.”

Sam Gray (The Up Coming)
“Ramsay is an insanely talented director, whose previous films – Ratcatcher and Morvern Callar – are some of the best to emerge from these isles. And while her latest has her innovative, poetic spirit, it’s oddly lacking in emotional affect, investing heavily in the abstract and sometimes baffling in its hallucinogenic qualities. The director was working on this film right up to the festival deadline, and it shows; there are themes of child abuse and PTSD worked into the narrative, but they never seem to emerge at the right time or place – they’re just there, like pieces of a puzzle that can be assembled in any order.”

You Were Never Really Here

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