Showing in the main competition strand, You Were Never Really Here is Lynne Ramsay's first movie since 2011's We Need to Talk About Kevin (opens in new tab), which was also nominated for the Palme d'Or. It again proves her immense worth as a maker of singular dramas that perform keyhole surgery on tortured psyches.
Joaquin Phoenix plays Joe, a hitman for hire who is commissioned to rescue the teenage daughter of an ambitious politician from a sex-trafficking ring. Joe is ruthlessly efficient at his job, favouring a hammer to a gun as his weapon of bad guy-dispatching choice. But this is no Taken (opens in new tab)-style thriller. It is instead cloaked in the slouch-shouldered shadow of Travis Bickle, with Ramsay consciously evoking Martin Scorsese's Palme d'Or-winning masterpiece Taxi Driver (opens in new tab) as Joe shambles about New York on his mission to deliver a young girl from her sordid fate.
Like Bickle, Joe is a military veteran, with the briefest of flashbacks illuminating his traumatic past in the Gulf War. Still more flashbacks, also short and painfully sharp, highlight a soul-shattering incident while in the FBI, and still more offer stroboscopic flashes of a harrowing childhood. At first these glimpses feel clunky, an obvious shorthand by which to explain Joe's splintered mind. But then they arrive with greater urgency, frenziedly cutting into the narrative like Norman Bates hacking at poor Marion Crane in the shower - a scene that Joe playfully re-enacts upon returning home one night to find his feeble mother watching Psycho (opens in new tab).
Ramsay has little interest in plot and none whatsoever in Hollywood tropes; hers is a film that deconstructs testosterone-fuelled thrillers and rubbishes ideas of the male hero. She lingers on the results of violence rather than the violence itself, and withholds catharsis. Phoenix, for his part, matches the intensity he brought to Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master (opens in new tab). He bulked up for the part and then let his hard muscle melt to flab, and Joe's mind is similarly in disrepair (Ramsay sent the actor an audio recording of fireworks and gunshots, instructing him that this is what Joe's head sounds like).
With its disorientating edits, flushed imagery, scuzzy locations, insidious sound design, haunting music choices and Jonny Greenwood's cacophonous score, You Were Never Really Here is horrifying and hallucinogenic. A nightmare in a damaged brain, it stays with you for days after, a waking fever dream.
Ramsay, apparently, was hurriedly working on it right up to its premiere in Cannes. The crazed rush has only added to its power, giving it a still-wet quality that fits its sweat-soaked delirium, and infusing each of its frames with 2am-paranoia. It will surely be among the prizes.