You Were Never Really Here (2018)
SHOULD I SEE IT?
Joaquin Phoenix. Wow.
Uncompromising and unflinching in telling its story, You Were Never Really Here is a movie full of images and moments, some grisly, some uniquely wonderful, and all leaving an impression on the viewer.
This is not an easy watch, but Phoenix carries us through a nightmare of a story, with a great score from Jonny Greenwood and director Lynne Ramsay's unique vision giving us a haunting film to consider long after the credits fade away.
This subject matter: Bleak. Tough. Uncomfortable. You Were Never Really Here is definitely not for everyone.
Though intentionally jarring, at times Ramsay's film overthinks itself and potentially loses the viewer with its flashbacks and quick cutaways.
This is a movie which consumes all the air in the room and even the moments of levity have an air of sadness about them.
Though his eccentricities have been well-documented, we often forget just how remarkable an actor Joaquin Phoenix can be. Our latest reminder comes in the form of You Were Never Really Here, a sobering, bleak look at a former soldier, battling PTSD, in a frightening world of contract killers, sex trafficking, delusions and hallucinations.
From the vivid and unique mind of writer and director Lynne Ramsay (We Need To Talk About Kevin, Morvern Callar), Phoenix stars as Joe, a former soldier and FBI agent, who lives with his elderly mother and works as a clandestine hitman. With odd specificity, he works for an intermediary who pays him cash, in return for his recovery of young girls caught up in an abhorrent underground prostitution ring.
What we see in Joe is a man who bottles up everything, his insides churning through a tumultuous boil. Occasionally, that boiling water breaches its lid and we see intermittent flashes of Joe’s past as a young child, of a young girl’s murder from his time served in the Middle East, and other images and interruptions that allow us to see what Joe is wrestling with, as he tries to exist in constant agitation.
When caring for his mother (Judith Roberts) and her declining health, we see that Joe has retained a kind and considerate element of his personality. However, this is juxtaposed with his frightening proficiency with a ball peen hammer and a .22. He also is deeply affected by a terrible childhood, and we soon learn that the tools of his trade all have meaning to Joe’s life in one way or another.
For purposes of Ramsay’s story, You Were Never Really Here locks into his latest assignment, involving Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), the 14-year-old daughter of a New York senator (Alex Manette). As Joe begins to work his way through the details of finding, locating, and freeing her, he begins to see the threads run deeper and higher up than he ever could have expected. The stakes are exponentially more dangerous and lead to a conflict within a luxurious brothel where Ramsay’s ability to craft a tense, off-rhythm action sequence is masterfully displayed.
As gritty and tense as all of this is, Ramsay doesn’t leave much air for us to breathe. The constrictive nature of the storytelling is purposeful; Joe can barely breathe both metaphorically and literally, exhibiting an affinity for asphyxiation, no less. As the machinations of Nina’s rescue manifest into different forms and soon hit Joe extremely close to home, his journey, and the film itself, offers very little hope for a satisfactory resolution for all involved.
As a result, You Were Never Really Here feels like it puts forth a few too many obstacles to receive blind praise and admiration. With that said, Phoenix is fantastic, bulked up, heavy in look and appearance, and adorned with a lifetime’s worth of pain, anguish, and emotion in his eyes and demeanor. Few actors can transform themselves into a character as impressively as Phoenix, and though we have seen him deliver in a vast array of roles and performances before, his work as Joe is haunting and hard to shake from one’s memory.
The stabs of memories, thoughts, and the escalating intensity of the images and violence which consume Joe’s mind, leave us a bit unsettled. However, there are some truly beautiful moments within this nightmarish scenario that are impossible to dismiss. Watching Joe clean cutlery with his mother offers a momentary respite to the garishness swirling around Joe’s work. Another scene, taking place underwater, is beautiful and tragic all at the same time. Ramsay is a visionary when it comes to infusing her films with imagery that enhance the stories she is telling. Several examples exist here, with credit also given to her cinematographer, Thomas Townend, and the chilling punctuation of the score, composed by Jonny Greenwood, fresh off his first Oscar nomination for 2017’s Phantom Thread.
At the end of the day, this is not a film for everyone. The subject matter, the grisly images, the bleak nature of it all may prove simply to be too much for some viewers. And one last scene in a diner is almost impossible to defend.
However, for the film’s occasional stumbles, Ramsay is properly fixated on Joe and Phoenix delivers a performance you cannot turn away from. Despite the horrors he has encountered, and the glimpses into the troubled life he has lived, we are still on the journey with him, cringing and looking away as he continually attempts to find a path to redemption and salvation.
CAST & CREW
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Ekaterina Samsonov, Alex Manette, Alessandro Nivola, Judith Roberts, John Dolan, Frank Pando, Dante Periera-Olson.
Director: Lynne Ramsay
Written by: Lynne Ramsay
Adapted from the novel "You Were Never Really Here" by Jonathan Ames.
Release Date: April 6, 2018