Home > Reviews > YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE – Jonny Greenwood


Original Review by Anže Grčar

When the discussion arises about which are some of the finest female directors working in industry today, the name of Lynne Ramsay is seldomly brought up into the conversation by fellow film aficionados, much to my great disappointment – her selectiveness and large gaps between mainly auteur, art house driven projects that never elicited a major box office turnout may have something to do with mainstream never taking her work to the heart. Indeed, the 48 year old Glasgow native has only four feature credits under her belt – albeit four great ones. Since the release of her debut Ratcatcher back in 1999, she has been an indie darling, notorious for making the film on her own terms (the production history of nearly aborted Jane Got The Gun project speaks for itself) and it shows. You Were Never Really Here, starring the exceptional Joaquin Phoenix in the title role and who won the Best Actor Award in Cannes, is a follow up to much discussed We Need To Talk About Kevin in which Tilda Swinton churned out her career best work (much like Phoenix in this case), and finally arrives after seven year gap between her previous feature, riding on the wave of ecstatic Cannes reviews where Ramsay also received a “Best Screenplay” award. The project seems way overdue for Ramsay fans – but if it takes so many years for her to forge another film of this kind of magnitude, I’ll gladly keep myself busy seven years more.

Joaquin Phoenix plays Joe, a combat veteran and former FBI agent with post-traumatic stress disorder, who works as a hired gun, rescuing trafficked girls and having a reputation for his merciless brutality – a useful asset when searching for a senator’s missing daughter, Nina. You Were Never Really Here is a brooding, subject heavy film that will be an instant turn off for anyone with great aversion for graphic violence, but it is also quite alluring and vividly poetic at the same time. Ramsay, as usual, creates an incredible sense of mood with an expressive collage of colors and camera placements that hold a heavy metaphorical value through which a viewer is tasked to interpret and filter thematic clues of the story. As the film is relatively low on dialogue, sound design and score were always going to play an integral part in the storytelling process, something that basically became a signature move for Ramsay.

Enter Jonny Greenwood, Ramsay’s collaborator on We Need To Talk About Kevin, who is mostly known to film score community as the current in-house composer for Paul Thomas Anderson, but who is best known as the lead guitarist and orchestrator for the massively popular rock group Radiohead to mainstream listeners. I jokingly told to a friend that You Were Never Really Here sounds like somebody had locked John Carpenter, Mica Levi and Krzysztof Penderecki into a room and let them collaborate on a film score – I actually still think that’s a pretty accurate description. The electronic beats resemble Carpenters 70s electronic score (most notably Assault on Precinct 13) and the squeaks, wails, mutterings and growls of tortured strings are exactly what only a passionate admirer of “Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima” would come up with. Yet, despite mixing several styles that seem to exist on diametrically opposite side of musical spectrum, Greenwood keeps the music sounding focused, never allowing it to descend into a schizophrenic mess, something at which a less experienced musician would probably almost instantly fail.

Of course, Greeenwood isn’t your regular composer. Despite enjoying the reputation of being known as a as the second most recognizable face in Radiohead next to Thom Yorke, Jonny is actually a classically trained multi-instrumentalist who closely studied Johann Sebastian Bach and legendary avant-garde composer Krzysztof Penderecki (whom he also befriended) in college, while performing in rock groups, thus resulting in style that can be, in most simplified layman’s terms, described as “modernist.” And if you have any interest in what comes out when he packs all of his interests, ranging from classical composition to brief allusions to his Radiohead career, into one condensed score, you’ve finally gotten yourself an answer; Bodysong, his debut score, shares thematic similarities, albeit to lesser degree.

The cue “Sandy’s Necklace” opens with an electric guitar riff that harkens back to Ennio Morricone’s Spaghetti Western scores and the subtle rhythmic presence of guitar is felt through the track. The throwback is intentional on Greenwood’s part, as the emotional landscape of modern day New York is many ways similar to the Wild West, with both being morally rotten places at the core where the male authority is going to impose swift justice onto the oppressor. Immediately into the track, as well as in second half of “YWNRH”, Greenwood introduces computerized, non-acoustic sounds that contrast the organic string ensemble, sounding like stock effects from 50s B movie. Effects are mechanical and robotic, mirroring the lead character Joe, who willfully obeys orders like a programmed machined being without conscience. It’s a clever piece of commentary on Greenwood’s behalf on how emotionally inept Joe is as a person.

The growling string section that is introduced in “Sandy’s Necklace” returns in full in disturbing “Hammer and Tape,” as well as in the equally virulent “Downstairs” and “YWNRH.” In “The Hunt” strings are utilized as a means of providing rhythmic pace and giving a slight action reverb to the cue. It is in these few cues where Greenwood most obviously channels Penderecki, as well as Bernard Herrmann, demanding his players perform the strings parts in unconventional ways, with series of aggressive pizzicato effects feeling as vicious as Joe’s execution methods. It’s not only to underscore Joe’s violent tendencies, but also to deliberately avoid utilizing manipulated sound design to penetrate Joe’s mentally which, in an unusual way, brings out the humanity from otherwise tortured character.

You see, beneath vicious thoughts implanted into Joe’s mind due severe PTSD, there is a spark of light that is waiting to be awakened. Despite dogmatically obeying orders like a brainwashed soldier, we are dealing with a human being whose central emotional turmoil lies in his inability to access deeper conscience. Live players, with their organic performances, remind us that we are dealing with a person from flesh and blood, albeit still playing totally deconstructed and unmelodic strokes that mirror Joe’s psychological disability. The avoidance of using lyrical themes was a smart move as it eliminates the sense of emotional reverence that you weren’t supposed to detect in the majority of the storyline. Another potent point in a film is his relationship with his mother, so don’t be too surprised if the color of buzzing violins occasionally reminds you of Herrmann’s Psycho.

“Nausea” has a Cliff Martinez vibe to it, and the electronic beats that function as kind of metronome inside Joe’s head, further conveying his shattered mentality. “Dark Streets” will again bring out memories of John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13. Not surprisingly, both films share parallel semantics of revenge and fury; Ramsay reconfigurates some of that classic 70s thriller feel in terms of visual aesthetics. Greenwood’s track possesses that synthesiser-heavy “cool” feeling to it that I think will prove very attractive to lovers of electronic music. The sentences “Must feel better, Sir” and “You were never really here” are murmured to an electronic rhythm, showing how even the most quotidian and arbitrary human functions are completely inaccessible to Joe as his daily existence is conditioned by orders – it further proves how at odds Joe really is with the world surrounding him. In the similarly electronic and percussive “Dark Streets (Reprise),” Greeenwood affixes diegetic sounds – intentionally jarring and distractingly in-your-face car horns and busy traffic – that comment on how Joe, although existing in urban jungle as all other members of society do, is internally marked by the scattered, unfocused glow of thoughts in his head.

Despite the score being wrapped in an incessant cloth of darkness, the two cues that frame the album – “Tree Synthesizers” and “Tree Strings” – are almost diametrically opposite; they are much warmer, accessible and melodic, constantly building up as Joe’s cathartic moment of finding humanity beneath veil of hate is unfolding on screen. The cues sound much more intimate, yet Greenwood intentionally never fully asserts and develops them to culminate in full lyrical statement, smartly avoiding pinpointing particular moments on screen. Rather, he focuses on the feeling of igniting humanity as well as keeping them ambiguous enough to avoid overly manipulating the listeners, allowing them to fill his emotional gaps on their own terms, almost taunting them to actively participate in the listen.

My calendar is telling me that we are in second half of March and here I am, willing to bet that Greenwood’s brand new score already cemented its appearance on my top 5 rundown at the end of the year. Whether you can appreciate Greenwood’s avant-garde techniques, will depend solely on your tolerance levels for highly dissonant and atonal music that is modernist to the core. Anyone who exclusively subscribes to fairly traditional and lush types of scoring obviously isn’t a target demographic to what Greenwood pulled off in this case, but if you’re able to invest your time to detect multiple layers that a seasoned craftsman pulled together, prepare to be cerebrally challenged on all fronts. For what my money’s worth, it has been a coon’s age since a composer so daringly pushed for this sort of agonizing musical commentary on a character’s emotional disengagement. This one is destined to become one of my 2018 favorites, and Jonny Greenwood just reaffirms his position as one of the finest musicians in the business.

Buy the You Were Never Really Here soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Tree Synthesisers (4:25)
  • Sandy’s Necklace (3:47)
  • Nausea (1:49)
  • Hammer and Tape (1:22)
  • Playground (Bass Clarinet) (3:47)
  • The Hunt (3:23)
  • Dark Streets (1:52)
  • YWNRH (3:56)
  • Nina Through Glass (3:22)
  • Votto (4:01)
  • Dark Streets (Reprise) (1:53)
  • Downstairs (0:50)
  • Joe’s Drive (1:23)
  • Tree Strings (5:10)

Running Time: 41 minutes 07 seconds

Lakeshore Records (2018)

Music composed by Jonny Greenwood. Conducted by Hugh Brunt. Orchestrations by Jonny Greenwood. Recorded and mixed by Graeme Stewart . Album produced by Jonny Greenwood.

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