You Were Never Really Here

Joaquin Phoenix has carved a niche in acting that he occupies alone – wiry, prismatic, sharp & brittle. His character roles arguably are all quite similar, all a bit strange and enigmatic. I’ve come to expect extraordinary performances from Phoenix. You Were Never Really Here is no different.

Phoenix plays Joe, a hitman who specialises in retrieving lost girls. He’s tasked with finding Nina, a teenage girl who has been subjected to the horrors of a sex-trafficking ring. Nina’s father, is a young politician who gives Joe the go-ahead to dish out brutal torture to punish Nina’s captors. But Joe’s world begins to unravel when things go awry when Nina is rescued. Throughout the film, not much is detailed on Joe, other than flashbacks to a clearly traumatic childhood. His mother, both in flashbacks and in current day, is painted thoroughly as a victim, abused by her husband, and in old-age, unable to watch Hitchcock’s Psycho without her son by her side to protect her. Whilst it’s never made abundantly clear, Joe cares deeply for his mother, despite obvious frustration with her. In addition to his solitary environment, Joe is also suffering from mental health issues. His passive and subdued nature, hiding the brutality of his life experiences creates an eerie shroud over the film. Similarly to Joker, Phoenix’s body is a canvas for his character, scarred, bloated, bruised and infected, in a scene (that lasts a lot longer than I would have liked – I have a thing about teeth) he pulls out one of his own teeth with pliers, flinching and suffering, and quite blood-thirsty. Whilst it’s clear he suffers, mentally and physically, the pain seems to be inherently woven into the fabric of his existence. Reflecting on the film, initially I thought that we didn’t see enough about Joe to fully understand his character, I thought he was under developed, but after some thought, it seems that audiences don’t actually need to understand anymore about Joe – he is a vessel of violence that leans toward the light. Rescuing women & girls is his character.

You Were Never Really Here reminded me in various ways of Taxi Driver, Leon, & The End of The Fucking World. Stylish, cinematic at the potential expense of narrative. The script is sparse and visually driven through long static shots focused on environmental details, or close focus on faces; there are segments of immense brutality hidden via the medium of CCTV, and within those same shots, the devastating images of young girls trafficked and the aftermath of the abuse that Joe has interrupted or stopped. The film doesn’t do much to completely reinvent this specific genre of thriller films; films where mentally unstable men are the saviours of traumatised women and girls. There’s one scene in particular though where Joe is asked by some women on the street to take a photo of them, and when he goes to take the photo, he has flashbacks of abuse victims he’s encountered, their open mouths full of laughter and glee transform in his head into the screams and devastation of the women & girls he’s saved. This slight lapse of Joe into the “normal world” is extraordinarily beautiful in cinematic terms. This scene in particular emphasises the bleakness, a man who exists in the void of abuse and violence will never ever be able to integrate into the mundanity of a street selfie. A victim’s cry, or pleading will haunt his waking moments.

You Were Never Really Here is accompanied by one of the best soundtracks I’ve heard in a while. Synthy chiming songs followed by ‘golden oldie’ style music – often found in the background of scenes. The film looks & sounds great, and contains moments of cinematic brilliance, but I left it feeling a bit short-changed. I really wanted to like this film, and I do, but I think it definitely could have done with a little more mind paid toward narrative. I appreciate that the point of some films is to leave the audience to come to their own conclusions but I wanted more. At a run time of 90 minutes, it’s short by today’s standards. But I think that it may be edging towards being a critics piece, we’ve seen plenty of films that manage both successfully, and I think with Phoenix being popular on both sides of the cinematic plain, appealing to critics and audiences alike, I feel like it could have pushed a little further, I wanted to see more, and that’s why it falls a little short for me. I highly recommend a viewing, we watched it on Amazon Prime where it’s free to subscribers (UK subscription). It won’t disappoint Phoenix fans who have come to expect standout performances, but it may leave you wanting a little bit more. What I have left with is a desire to view more Lynne Ramsay films. We Need To Talk About Kevin has been on my list for a long time, and based on my reading up and listening to reviews of You Were Never Really Here, my issue with the film may be a lack of understanding about Ramsay’s cinematic vision. Whatever my thoughts on it, it’s still sitting with me, so whatever it’s doing, it’s doing it right, I’m just not sure it did it as much as I wanted it to.

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