You Were Never Really Here

In DVD/Blu-ray by Alex Moss Editor

Imagine if a film like Taken had substance. If it wasn’t just about bloody revenge and action set pieces. Imagine if a revenge thriller was less about the revenging and the thrilling as it was about the emotional impact these events had on people. This is what You Were Never Really Here aims for. It’s not always pretty, it’s not going to be to everyone’s liking but it is a fascinating and original take on a tried and tested genre.

The avenger in question is Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) who is a gun, or in this case hammer, for hire who tracks down missing girls. Living with and caring for his mother, Joe is on the brink of suicide. But it is here that writer director Lynne Ramsay takes an interesting turn. We frequently see Joe preparing or even beginning to kill himself. But he doesn’t. It’s not that he fails it’s that Joe is a natural born survivor.

Existing in a nihilistic, neon drenched and ‘80s synth pounding soundtracked world, there are parallels to Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive. But there is nothing sexy or cool here. Joe is a schlubby, bearded, almost homeless looking hero. No cool white bomber jackets here. Instead Ramsay takes us on a journey into Joe’s psyche, damaged, fragile but resolute at its core. In glimpsed montages we see what Joe has been through, war, the horrors of human trafficking, childhood abuse, violence towards his mother. It paints a tapestry of who Joe is without ever feeling the need to divulge or explain it. As such, it’s powerful, punchy and scarring.

Unlike Winding Refn, Ramsay isn’t interested in the act of violence. You Were Never Really Here is undoubtedly a violent film, but Ramsay is more interested in the aftermath of the violence. Acts of aggression are seen from afar, or through CCTV camera. Instead violence is a catalyst, a tsunami impacting the shores of the characters involved. Like her last film We Need To Talk About Kevin, Ramsay wants to highlight the devastation violence causes. At one point Hitchcock’s Psycho is referenced, a film in which you famously never see the knife puncture Janet Leigh on camera, but your mind in convinced otherwise. Ramsay’s direction is content to let out mind fill in the blanks and, like a well written book, it’s more powerful than anything on screen.

In the lead role Phoenix is typically terrific. He imbues Joe with a bear like quality, an apex predator shuffling through the forest, angry, down on his luck but always capable of rising up, ferocious and unstoppable. It’s in the more delicate moments, in particular with his mother, where Phoenix allows just a hint of a smile to creep into Joe’s world.  

A delicate and hard hitting essay on trauma, You Were Never Really Here is a tight, minimal film that speaks volumes by whispering quietly.

You Were Never Really Here

In Films by James Hay - Cinema Editor

On the surface, director Lynne Ramsay‘s You Where Never Really Here is a film about a hitman fighting to rescue a young damsel in distress. Doesn’t sound like anything new. Bursting out from under that surface, however, is something very different.

Joaquin Phoenix offers something that few, maybe none, of his contemporaries can. He is almost elemental in his physicality. His tortured Joe, here, is a maelstrom of dysfunction, maladjustment and suicidal trauma.

Recurring, and perhaps ever so slightly overused, flashbacks enlighten the roots of his fractured existence. And here in lies the film’s depth and impact. The comparisons to Martin Scorsese‘s seminal Taxi Driver are valid and fair, if not well earned. There are almost certainly visual references, nods and, dare it be said, homage to that classic throughout Ramsay’s film. It’s more a tonal piece about the realities of living with post-traumatic stress disorder, the violent retributional rage and suicidal abandon that go along with that, rather than a conventional narrative film. The plot is largely secondary, in fact, the focus being so prevalent on Phoenix’s characterisation of a man not broken but shattered, destroyed, by the terrible things he’s seen and done. Questions are subtly but powerfully raised about the consequences when our society asks certain terrible but necessary things of the few, so that the many don’t have to.

Although an incredibly violent film, a very deliberate and overt decision has been made not to actually show any of it, not in any conventional glamourised style anyway. It’s almost all aftermath; cause and effect. Flashes of image and sound rather than gory close-ups and multiple angle showy action editing. In fact, as is so often the case, the marketing for the film and, in particular, the trailer are misleading. This isn’t your classic action revenge movie with Joaquin Phoenix playing the badass hero. Ironic that such a dishonest portrayal of the film is used to promote it, as it is incredibly raw in its honesty as a piece of filmmaking. A thing can be both raw and beautiful. Like a crude diamond. And it’s fair to say that Ramsay harnessed that kind of performance from Phoenix with considerable craft.

Oh, and whether you love or hate an ambiguous ending, then here you get the possibility of three. The film’s title possibly making sense for the first time just as the credits roll. Not for the faint-hearted but by cleverly subverting its genre, You Were Never Really Here allows itself to say more. And Phoenix, again, is terrifyingly magnetic.