You Were Never Really Here, 2017.
Written and Directed by Lynne Ramsay.
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Ekaterina Samsanov, Alex Manette, Frank Pando, John Doman, Alessandro Nivola, Jason Babinsky, Vinicius Damasceno, and Judith Roberts.
A traumatized veteran, unafraid of violence, tracks down missing girls for a living. When a job spins out of control, Joe’s nightmares overtake him as a conspiracy is uncovered leading to what may be his death trip or his awakening.
Where is Joaquin Phoenix in You Were Never Really Here? The answer is blurred between the lines of reality and vigilante fantasy, as traumatized war veteran Joe makes it his personal vendetta to rid the world of sex trafficking scum (the girls are also underage and barely teenagers) for reasons briefly shown as blink and you miss it flashbacks that feel more like an accurate representation of PTSD rather than half-baked narrative exposition.
None of this quality coupled with uncompromising direction should come as any surprise seeing as You Were Never Really Here is a Lynne Ramsay feature (the woman behind the outstanding Ratcatcher and We Need to Talk About Kevin here adapting the novel by Jonathan Ames), and it is unfortunate that the gaps between her efforts are as wide as they are. I don’t know if studios just don’t want to take a chance on her work (as artistically stunning as it is, it certainly isn’t very marketable) or if she prefers directing films every six years or so, but the world needs more of her work.
As usual, Joaquin Phoenix delivers a physically transformative performance, here portraying a broken and suicidal shell of a man who, in between caring for his fragile elderly mother (Judith Roberts), takes on jobs to track down pedophile rings (or any source of sexual captivity), but finds himself trapped in a crime mystery after accepting the objective to rescue a politician’s 13-year-old “runaway” daughter. Ekaterina Samsanov may not have much screen time (especially compared to Joaquin Phoenix), but the beauty emerging from torment is how Nina and Joe impact one another. The ending alone is simultaneously a portrait of overwhelming devastation and slight optimism with one of the best examples of twisted humor all year thrown in for good measure.
Also, when the job falls apart Lynne Ramsay never really shifts the film from character study to obsessing over what is really going on. We’re there with every one of Joe’s flashing images to his past, whether it be a glimpse of the Gulf War, uncovering dozens of dead children inside of a hangar, or domestic abuse in the form of his father abusing his mother. Again, these aren’t just thrown in as random exposition, as it becomes clear how these tragedies affect Joe’s day-to-day life. The twists are still important to the overall experience, but the proceedings never cross too far over into genre territory. Instead, You Were Never Really Here tests whether a man this destroyed can ever find happiness again, but here’s the thing, the experience is also somewhat abstract and driven by visual and sonic cues. There is nothing stopping audiences from rationally contemplating what is real and what is a hallucination. Still, even if one takes everything at face value, this is one emotionally draining piece of character work. Lynne Ramsay packs more substantial and provocative material into 90 minutes than most filmmakers could ever dream of accomplishing with three hours.
The photography from her regular collaborator Thomas Townsend is rich in vibrant color, often lingering on specific objects or surreal images at the perfect length to elicit some kind of uneasy thought or strong reaction. For a film fixated on such violent activity, the direction actually makes the point to shy away from the act of murder, often showing confrontations from surveillance cameras or outright skipping over it cutting to the grisly aftermath. Also , coming off of his Oscar nomination for Phantom Thread, Jonny Greenwood produces a thumping electronic score bursting with propulsive momentum; there’s a 30 second scene of Joe driving towards his destination/fate where the beat consistently and gradually picks up in intensity, and I’ll be damned if it’s not one of the most memorable pieces of music in film all year.
Satisfactory exhaustion will settle in long before the credits roll cementing You Were Never Really Here as another striking accomplishment from Lynne Ramsay. Some have already compared the film to Taxi Driver, so take it from someone that proudly has that film among his top 10 favorites of all time, this is a modern-day version. You Were Never Really Here is a visually arresting, hypnotic, distressing fever nightmare look at PTSD; Joaquin Phoenix is sensational. This film will never leave your mind.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com