Lynne Ramsay is a director who uses every filmmaking tool at her disposal to put her audience right into a character’s emotional state, and Joaquín Phoenix has been on a roll lately of delving deep into the psychology of conflicted, withdrawn men, so the team up of the two artists in You Were Never Really Here is just as dark, thought-provoking, and immersive as one would expect.
Phoenix’s presence is felt throughout nearly every scene as he lumbers, slow and heavy, through a cruel and intense world – gaining a significant amount of weight and bulk to fill the enormous figure of an ex-soldier suffering severe PTSD. The character, known only as ‘Joe’, finds both work and an outlet for his most violent impulses by seeking abducted children and punishing those who take them. “McCleary said you were brutal”, a prospective client notes. Joe sits in silence for a moment, his face blank and gaze averted. His response is simple and detached: “I can be.” The violence of You Were Never Really Here comes out in sudden bursts, flashes of rage glimpsed briefly through security camera monitors or shown only in the aftermath. On the surface the film seems like a revenge-thriller but Ramsey’s screenplay and Phoenix’s performance make it clear that Joe’s aggression is nothing more than a highly destructive release for his own inner turmoil. There’s nothing righteous about the violence, but it’s the only way Joe can cope with his past trauma. What made Joe this way is never explicitly stated and shown only through momentary flashbacks, but we see just enough to begin to understand him.
The plot largely focuses on Joe’s attempts to rescue the daughter of a New York State Senator, and the conspiracy he winds up involved in as a result. Ekaterina Samsonov as Nina is a beautiful representation of both innocence and its corruption, and the relationship that forms between her and Joe in their brief scenes together resembles that of De Niro’s Travis Bickle and Jodie Foster as Iris in Taxi Driver. Indeed much of You Were Never Really Here plays as a blend of Scorsese’s classic and Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, with the classic story of a tormented figure struggling to find redemption or purpose. There are moments of peace and happiness within the bleak world Ramsay presents, particularly moments with Joe’s mother (a scene-stealing Judith Roberts) where Joe manages a semblance of a normal life, but they are gone all too fast as Joe is thrust back into the darkness.
You Were Never Really Here is a film made with exquisite skill in every department under the capable direction of Lynne Ramsay. Ramsay and cinematographer Tom Townend know just when to use a close-up and when to stay back, letting action play out in beautifully framed shots or putting the audience up close to just see what remains of a horrible incident. Johnny Greenwood’s score alternates between pulsing, thumping, and screeching as it suggests the sounds going on within Joe’s own mind. Phoenix’s best-actor win at 2017’s Cannes Film Festival was well-deserved for the way he holds in all of Joe’s pain, showing it only through the subtlest of facial shifts until the moments when it bursts forth. Special mention must also be made of the sound design, with the sound of Joe’s footsteps given additional impact and weight as he carries himself forward one step at a time. Admittedly the dialogue is so quiet at times it’s easy to lose, particularly with Phoenix mumbling nearly every word, and there were times I nearly missed vital information. Yet it also demonstrated how in the hands of the right director and actor the dialogue can be almost unnecessary, as even if I missed the words I never lost sense of the tone Ramsay has created or the message she was trying to convey.
4 and a half stars.