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Film Review: You Were Never Really Here

16 March 18 words: Ashley Carter

Lynne Ramsay’s fourth feature is taut, grimly poetic thriller about a former soldier’s search for redemption

Director: Lynne Ramsay

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Dante Pereira-Olson, Larry Candy

Running time: 90 mins

I don’t know if it’s due to my own shortcomings as a writer or the specific nature of certain films, but there are occasions when it comes to reviewing a movie where you sit and stare at a blank page, unsure quite how to start.  And it’s not for a lack of appreciation for the film in question or for dogshit delusions of writer’s block.  Quite the opposite.  It’s because a film has achieved a certain, indescribable quality of greatness that is almost impossible to put into words. A quality that’s more visceral than anything else, something that, as a viewer, you feel as much as you see and hear. Have you ever woken up and tried to describe a dream you’ve just had to someone?  Something that felt like a fully-formed, fascinating, involved, structured narrative all of a sudden becomes a hurricane of poorly described vignettes, barely resembling anything close to real life.

This is the struggle I’ve had with reviewing Lynne Ramsay’s stunning fourth film, You Were Never Really Here.  In trying to fill my 500-word brief, all I really want to write are six simple words: just go and fucking see it.  That, however, will not suffice for you good readers of LeftLion, so, embracing the inevitable inadequacy that is to follow, here goes nothing:

Joaquin Phoenix is Joe, a bullish army veteran whose every action screams with a pain for past experiences.  Whether it’s in the frustrated delicacy with which he cares for his elderly mother, the terrifying calm with which he suffocates himself with plastic bags or the ferocious apathy he displays when caving in people’s heads with his favoured ball-pein hammer, he’s a man whose inner turmoil betrays his outward stoicism.  Working outside of the law, he is hired by shady figures to carry out tasks that the police could never undertake, specializing in rescuing lost children who have been sold into sex slavery.  When he is hired to rescue a Senator’s daughter who has suffered a similar fate, he sets to his task with his regular ruthless expertise and efficiency.  However, after learning that the girl’s father has committed suicide in the interim, he finds himself caught up in a much deeper series of events that immediately threaten to bring the chaos of his professional life into his personal.

Every scene bursts with innovation from Ramsay as she presents a film that somehow combines a poetic aesthetic with an execution of pure muscle

Joe’s motivations fluctuate between the financial to something deeper.  Through a series of carefully crafted flashbacks, we are given glimpses into the trauma he’s experienced both in childhood and whilst serving in the Army.  We’re repeatedly presented with a character seemingly craving his own death; as well as his plastic bag escapades, we see Joe dangling a dagger over his open mouth, or dropping it over his bare feet, moving them away at the moment of release.  In many regards, he has the appearance of a man that has already died, his soul ripped out long ago in a distant war zone.  Perhaps it was seeing a dying child, his foot desperately twitching in the sand as his life slips away, or maybe a container full of dead bodies, faces twisted in silent screams of suffocation that killed him, or maybe even a combination of just seeing too much darkness in the world, being plunged so far into the deep that he can never truly come back to a world of functional emotion.

As impressive as Joaquin Phoenix is, and he is sublime, this is a film made by its director.  Every scene bursts with innovation from Ramsay as she presents a film that somehow combines a poetic aesthetic with an execution of pure muscle.  All of the superfluities that would have been included from a lesser director are stripped away, and we’re left with a haunting presentation of a film made of pure, primitive emotion.  Trusting in an audience by refusing to hand-hold, she begins with an unset table, and continues at an intense pace that cares little for whether you fully understand what’s unfolding in front of your eyes or not.  It isn’t a story that follows a traditional narrative structure per-sé, rather presenting a fluid, continuous story that relentlessly follows Joe on his quest for bloody salvation.

Ramsay’s innovation is most clearly seen in the moments of extreme violence.  In one sequence, which invokes memories of Travis Bickle’s last stand in Taxi Driver, we see Joe storming a brothel through surveillance footage shown in silence. Rather than shying away from the violence, she manages to reinforce it by not showing it explicitly, creating instead a creepily evocative silent scene that stays in the memory long after the credits have finished rolling.

Whilst the untraditional style of the film may leave some viewers feeling unsatisfied, Ramsay has created in You Were Never Really Here a unique masterpiece that makes the most of a career-best performance from Phoenix.  Like I said, just go and fucking see it.

Did you know? You Were Never Really Here received a seven-minute standing ovation at its Cannes Film Festival premiere.


You Were Never Really Here is screening at Broadway Cinema until Thursday 22nd March

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