You Were Never Really Here Review

In “You Were Never Really Here,” writer and director Lynn Ramsay takes what might have been a more conventional revenge thriller or lone wolf battling his inner demons story and gives it a more harrowing, artistic edge. Think “Taken” but for the serious arthouse crowd.

Ramsay, who last brought us the supremely dark and unforgettable “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” proves herself to be one of cinema’s bravest voices working today with this film, about a war vet named Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) working as an enforcer/hired muscle who specializes in recovering missing children and exacting brutal revenge on the captors. It’s a role that’s big and roomy but internal and dark – perfect for a method actor like Phoenix – and the results are chilling.

Ramsay is not gentle to the viewer at all in both the direction and adapting of Jonathan Ames’ book. Although she leaves most of the violence to the imagination, what we don’t see proves as compelling as the few calculated angles she does give us in any one take. What would be a traditional action sequence in a genre version of this story has a more haunting feel when Ramsay decides to tell it using only security camera footage of the premises where the action takes place. Add in Johnny Greenwood’s score (seriously, is any film composer more interesting these days?) and a clear, compelling tone is set.

The story also has no standard movie fat on it, forcing us (and Phoenix) to do most of the work in terms of making sense of what we seen on screen. We do get enough cutaways to flashbacks and sudden visions that piecing together Joe’s personal narrative eventually becomes less laborious, but they are quick and abrasive, conveying the trauma and pain in a way that someone with Joe’s troubled past might actually experience it.

This storytelling approach to trauma feels unique considering the abundance of films in the 21st century that have dealt with it. “You Were Never Really Here” asks tough questions, chief among them being whether a deeply wounded person like Joe can find relief or peace in the work that he does. It’s a conversation happening in the dark corner of a larger conversation about mental health, which is part of its strength and allure as a story.

Some audiences will doubtless find Ramsay’s film inaccessible; she has a way of denying audiences some of the core satisfactions of a traditional story. Some will also find it too dark and off-putting – similar criticisms were lobbed at “We Need to Talk About Kevin” for broaching the uncomfortable territory of the mind of a mother trying to figure out what went wrong in the wake of her son committing a massacre at school. As provocative as it may be, Ramsay’s voice is an important one that film, on the whole, could use more of in these troubling times.


4/5 Stars


You Were Never Really Here
Directed by Lynn Ramsay
Written by Lynn Ramsay, Jonathan Ames (book)
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Ekaterina Samsonov, Judith Roberts


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