You Were Never Really Here-2018
Scott’s Review #932
Reviewed August 19, 2019
You Were Never Really Here (2018) is an independent psychological thriller most reminiscent in tone and texture to the legendary Scorsese film, Taxi Driver (1976). The main characters are worlds apart, but the plot and the trimmings are clearly influenced by the classic, just amid a different time-period (the present).
A terrific and brooding performance by star Joaquin Phoenix leads the charge, as does fantastic direction by Lynne Ramsay, and the editing team, as the dark film is an unusual and impressive choice for a female director. Snippets of cinematic genius exist during a film that, with a more complete package, might have been a masterpiece.
We first meet Joe (Phoenix) somewhere in Ohio as, we learn, he is a hired gun sent to rescue underage girls from sex trafficking rings. He is brutal in his methods of rescue, resorting to gruesome murders to complete his assignments, and is paid handsomely. Back in New York City, he cares for his elderly mother whom he adores, and is contacted to rescue Nina, the daughter of a New York State Senator, Albert Votto for an enormous sum of money. When Joe rescues Nina and waits for Votto, events quickly spin out of control and a sinister web of deception is revealed.
When you look at the story that You Were Never Really There tells, it is one that has been told many times before, typically in slick Hollywood conventional standards. Angry ex-military unleashes brutality on devious criminals, rescues girl, and returns her safely to the open arms of her awaiting parents. Fortunately, the film is more thoughtful than that, adding complexity with the Joe and Nina relationship, and a stylistic, poetic quality featuring Joe’s relationship with his mother.
The plot is paced very well so that the events occur only over the course of a day or two, and the film is highly unconventional and dark. Frequent flashbacks give the film mystique as we see both Joe and his mother abused by Joe’s father, as a young Joe hides in a closet and hyperventilates. Now an adult, Joe is suicidal, frequently fantasizing or practicing his own death until he is interrupted.
As grisly as the film can be, beautiful and tender moments are laden throughout as Ramsay provides gorgeous style and humanity. A homoerotic moment occurs when Joe lies next to the man who has killed his mother. As the man is close to death at the hands of Joe, they hold hands as Joe provides comfort to the man in death. Joe then buries his mother in a pond in upstate New York, providing her with a peaceful final resting place. These are unique scenes that feel almost like an art film.
The conclusion is open-ended leaving lots of questions; Joe and Nina appear to ride off into the sunset together, but what will they do? What is to become of them? Surely, not a romantic element can be found, but where will they go from here? Both characters appear to have nothing left to hang on to other than each other, but is this sustainable? The film is not the type that is poised for a sequel, but I would be very curious what Ramsay has planned for her characters.
Joe is not portrayed as wicked, he is too complex for that. Phoenix, a tremendous actor, perfectly infuses the character with brutality and anger, but also a tenderness and a warmth. The aspects between You Were Never Really Here and Taxi Driver: the grizzled New York portrayals, the political backdrop, and the main characters saving a woeful young girl from the depths of despair, make the two film’s comparable. However, Joe and Travis Bickle are opposites, the latter having a frenetic humor that the former lacks.
Ramsay has been around for a while with We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011) her most prominent film. She is successful at telling stories about deeply troubled individuals who are good people handed awful circumstances. With a tremendous actor like Phoenix on board, she crafts a solid work that has provided You Were Never Really Here (2018) with accolades, at least among the indie critics. Ramsay seems poised to break out in a big way and shake up the film industry with future works.