Movie Review: ‘You Were Never Really Here’ is an enthralling experience that stays just out of arm’s reach
Director: Lynne Ramsay
Writers: Lynne Ramsay (screenplay by), Jonathan Ames (based on the book by)
Stars: Joaquin Phoenix, Judith Roberts, Ekaterina Samsonov
Synopsis: 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.
In figure skating, there are several elements that go into evaluating an athlete’s performance. The first is the degree of difficulty of the moves attempted. This is known as the technical score. The second is the how well the skater executed the attempted moves. This is the grade of execution. The third, and most difficult to quantify, is the program component score. This score is determined by much more subjective aspects. It is very hard to explain exactly what you see when you watch a truly great skater perform or the qualities that a routine from a lesser skater lack, but you know it when you see it. You feel the transcendent artistry and soulfulness of a gold medal performance, even if the fellow olympians have a similar technical toolbox. Lynne Ramsay is to film what an olympian is to figure skating. She is an elite filmmaker with the technical craftsmanship of a master, even with only 4 feature films on her résumé. Her shots are bold and her imagery is beautiful, but her most recent film, You Were Never Really Here felt like there was something missing. It is a movie without a pulse, guiding you through a striking visual, audial, and sensory world, only to leave you feeling slightly cold and mostly unmoved.
You Were Never Really Here is the story of Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), a gun for hire who is tasked with rescuing the daughter of a U.S. Senator who has been kidnapped. With the thrust of the story established early in 90-minute film, the remainder is spent following Joe around as he either a) discovers people he knows who have died because of his latest contract or b) commit violence on the people who want the girl, whose name is Nina (played by Ekaterina Samsonov). That’s pretty much the whole film. This is not a bad thing, on its own. There have been plenty of films that have utilized very contained, stripped-down stories to make profound, elevated works of art. The problem is that Ramsay’s attempts at giving the story that extra punch-up come from the parts of the film that aren’t Joe stomping around and pummeling his potential enemies with a ball-peen hammer, and those moments are, more often than not, too brief to establish anything to grasp onto.
We see small snippets of Joe’s past in the military and his upbringing in an abusive household, but there is a non-specificity to his trauma because of the brevity of these moments that makes it difficult to connect with Joe on an emotional level. In a movie that flies by in an hour-and-a-half, there was plenty of time to give the audience a better idea of what drives Joe. The images we see in his past and the parallels in is modern state are striking, but they don’t make a character full enough to have an opinion on. The film tries to let the audience craft a puzzle to discover Joe, but there are too many pieces missing.
What Joe lacks in characterization on the page, however, is leveled out by the performance of Joaquin Phoenix. Phoenix has always been a purveyor of broken, socially-stilted men looking for their place in the world and that is again the case in You Were Never Really Here. In a movie where emotion is almost always sullied, Phoenix provides moments of rage and sadness that stand out from the film around him. Joe doesn’t seem to have a particular affinity for his work, but it pays the bills for himself and his mother, who he both loves and is annoyed by (in that order). The strongest scenes in the film are driven by their relationship, full of sadness and dependence through a life of shared abuse. The other scenes in the film don’t possess the same poignancy as these, even as Phoenix’s performance is unwaveringly enrapturing (the guy makes crushing a green jellybean compelling, for God’s sake).
Fortunately for Ramsay, there is enough of a singularity to the vision of You Were Never Really Here to overcome most of the structural and thematic shortcomings of the film. Despite the film having few plot beats, it rushes by at breakneck speed. Ramsay’s eye for shot composition is remarkable and the combination of her eye and her use of violence makes this the most visually compelling film of the year so far. It is unlike almost any revenge film you will see with its patience, quietness, and frequent use of long takes. This patience only ramps up the viscerally of the action sequences, lingering on strike after strike with the aforementioned ball-peen hammer. You feel Joe and Nina’s struggle for survival because you experience the violence in a completely engrossing way.
When the film isn’t silent, we are treated to the work of Jonny Greenwood, perhaps the best film composer currently working. His work continues to dazzle here, ramping up the tension every time his music plays over a scene. This score combines the string-driven scores we are used to from his collaborations with Paul Thomas Anderson with the electric guitar and electronic elements that he often uses in his work away from film. It is not an omni-present score, but that only makes it more effective when it does pop up. A score like this one is able to make the most mundane actions make your palms sweat from the tension. Greenwood continues to be a hugely valuable asset for all the films he works on.
As the film moves towards its ending, the story becomes one of very pulpy government corruption. The bombastic plot twists don’t mesh well with the crippling tension of the rest of the film, sending confusing signals about what it is all supposed to mean. It’s possible that a version of this film that leans into the pulp of the script, and a little less on the arthouse poetry, that achieves its goals more successfully than this one. As it stands, the two approaches clash. The film ends bombastically (and very memorably) but there is no urge to reflect on what you just saw. It is a character study that is too vague with its characterization and a political commentary that goes too big.
You Were Never Really Here is a movie that can, and should, be appreciated for so many reasons. The artistry on the screen is indelible. Lynn Ramsay has proven that she is one of the most talented, original, and challenging filmmakers we have. She makes choices that are completely her own and executes them perfectly. Her degree of difficulty is very high. Her technical execution is almost flawless. But in the end, I couldn’t help but think, So what?
Overall Grade: B-
Hear our (slightly different) podcast review on Episode 270: