'You Were Never Really Here' review - Joaquin Phoenix at his most endearingly unhinged


The highly original You Were Never Really Here is nothing short of a brutally uncomfortable, action-thriller masterpiece. Max Langer reviews.

Catch this film at Bristol's Watershed; on every evening this and next week.

Known as a bit of a perfectionist, Lynne Ramsay has waited six years since her last directorial outing to put her latest film together. She is famous for only working on a film if she is given complete agency in its creation and so her back catalogue is on the small side. However, between We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011), Morvern Callar (2002) and Ratcatcher (1999) she has managed to stake her claim as one of the most talented directors working today.

You Were Never Really Here is Ramsay’s adaptation of Jonathon Ames’ novella of the same name. The film ollows Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) a hired gun specialising in rescuing victims of the child sex trade. After taking a job to rescue the child of a state senator, he is tangled up in a giant conspiracy which forces him to face his inner demons.

So, so far it sounds like your typical action thriller. However, You Were Never Really Here stands out in so many ways, completely rewriting the typical thriller formula. The plot takes an extreme back-seat in the film; in fact it can largely be ignored. Instead, Ramsay chooses to explore the character of Joe, whose past traumas as a child, a soldier, and a FBI agent constantly challenge him. In fact, when we first meet him he is suffocating himself with a plastic bag, an apparent coping mechanism he has developed.

He seems to be on the edge of breaking down in every scene, with even the smallest detail triggering a flashback. At one point a group of women ask him to take their photo, causing a haunting sequence where their smiling faces morph into the blank stares of corpses from one of Joe’s previous cases. However, when on a job, Joe seems to transform from an uncertain, terrified man and into a cold-blooded killer.

Joaquin Phoenix manages to bring this fractured consciousness to the screen... he seems to be on the edge of breaking down in every scene

This transformation is mirrored by Jonny Greenwood’s excellent score. Having only recently scored Phantom Thread, he appears to be on a bit of roll. His chaotic strings bring out Joe’s inner turmoil, before switching to stronger synthesised beats to ramp up tension in the action sequences. This then meshes with creepily chosen pop songs whose serenity provide a counterpoint to the brutality in the visuals.

However, when I mention the action sequences I am lying slightly, because in truth the action is rather limited, mostly happening in the imagination of the audience. One such scene shows the violence through black and white CCTV footage; another simply shows Joe’s trail of destruction. These methods distance the viewer from brutal violence, meaning that even at his worst you can’t help but identify with Joe’s plight.

You Were Never Really Here stands out in so many ways, completely rewriting the typical thriller formula

Joaquin Phoenix manages to bring this fractured consciousness to the screen with his usual brilliance. His performance exudes physicality, every move he makes appearing to provoke a previous injury. Though, despite this physicality, he is able not to lose any emotional nuance from his portrayal, showing Joe’s spiralling sanity with perfect clarity.


In the end, the brilliance of You Were Never Really Here lies in the details. The camera continually lingers on small items that would otherwise go unnoticed: a stray lock of hair; a face in the crowd; or the colour of a Jelly Bean. None of these details are superfluous, each building upon the last, until by the film's end you can’t help but identify with Joe’s turbulent mental state, when every face challenges your emotional stability, every street is an obstacle.

Lynne Ramsay has again shown her mastery of cinema. She has managed to take a formulaic thriller plot and has used it to probe the depths of psychological turmoil, balancing action and moments of contemplation in a way that so many films fail to do. Let’s just hope it won’t take another six years for her next masterpiece.

Photo Credit: YouTube / New Trailer Buzz

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