Directed by: Lynne Ramsay
Premise: Based on the book by Jonathan Ames. A hired gun (Joaquin Phoenix) who is haunted by violent trauma earns his living tracking down missing and kidnaped children. He stumbles into a conspiracy of political corruption and human trafficking.
What Works: Lynne Ramsay’s films tend to deal with the aftermath of violence. Her last feature was 2011’s We Need to Talk About Kevin and You Were Never Really Here is equally grim and challenging. It’s also an excellent portrait of a man coping with trauma. Joaquin Phoenix plays Joe, a man who tracks down missing or kidnapped children, often killing the abductors with a ballpeen hammer. He also cares for his elderly mother and the contrast between Joe’s violent methods and his tenderness toward children and his mother makes for a complex portrait. Joaquin Phoenix is an actor of considerable range who has appeared in everything from big Hollywood movies to avant-garde dramas but this is the kind of role he does best. Phoenix doesn’t talk much in You Were Never Really Here but he conveys much through his posture and line delivery and the actor packs each moment with subtle character details. Also impressive is Ekaterina Samsonov as the pre-teen girl Joe is charged with locating. Samsonov holds the screen with Phoenix. Like her costar, Samsanov doesn’t have much to say but she communicates a lot through the subtle choices in her performance. You Were Never Really Here has a violent atmosphere comparable to Taxi Driver and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The film has an ominous and aggressive tone but the violence is staged, shot, and edited in such a way that we feel as though we’ve seen more violence than we actually have. The picture also uses unusual and asynchronous sounds that lay over each other in a way that is disorienting. The result is a movie that gets under the viewer’s skin and You Were Never Really Here is a difficult movie to watch as it challenges the way mainstream cinema usually presents violence.
What Doesn’t: You Were Never Really Here is probably going to frustrate some viewers. The picture is not made in the style that audiences are accustomed to from mainstream film and television. Filmmaker Lynne Ramsay choses unusual angles and foregoes a lot of expository information. Joaquin Phoenix’s character had an abusive childhood and the film drops hints that he is a veteran of a Middle Eastern conflict. However, the film does not provide much of an explanation as to exactly what happened to his character. The childhood abuse is clear enough but his military career is only shown in a few disconnected images. The intent seems to be to convey the fragmented nature of the protagonist’s mind and it is admirable the way the filmmakers trust the audience to piece together the clues. But there’s not much to work with and You Were Never Really Here doesn’t provide the kind of neat and closed conclusion that viewers usually find satisfying.
Bottom Line: You Were Never Really Here is a beautifully crafted film that’s also difficult to watch. The picture challenges the audience to think about its images and the ways in which violence is typically portrayed in Hollywood movies.
Episode: #696 (April 29, 2018)