You Were Never Really Here has less success breaking the mold for its genre, but explores the often ignored corners in thoughtful and intriguing ways.
You Were Never Really Here is the latest offering from Scottish filmmaker Lynne Ramsay, who has firmly established her voice as a storyteller despite having only directed four feature-length films over the last twenty years. Ramsay uses her impressionist style here to adapt the novel of the same name by author/screenwriter Jonathan Ames (Blunt Talk), and in doing so delivers another moody study of a psychologically traumatized character. The results are perhaps less narratively groundbreaking than Ramsay's similar work on the films We Need to Talk About Kevin and Movern Callar, but are equally striking in other ways. You Were Never Really Here has less success breaking the mold for its genre, but explores the often ignored corners in thoughtful and intriguing ways.
Phoenix stars in You Were Never Really Here as Joe, a military veteran and former FBI agent who now lives in New York City and spend his free time caring for his elderly mother (Judith Roberts). However, Joe is haunted by not only his days in combat, but also his experiences in the field as a federal agent and his childhood growing up under an abusive father. As a way of both dealing with his emotional pain and making a living, Joe takes up a career as a hired gun who specializes in rescuing young girls from sex trafficking operations around the city.
One day Joe's handler John McCleary (John Gorman) brings him his next job, which involves finding Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), the abducted daughter of New York State Senator Albert Votto (Alex Manette). Joe has no problem locating and recovering Nina from her captors, only for the entire operation to suddenly go south and spiral completely out of control. Realizing that he has crossed some very powerful men who are willing and able to harm anyone he cares about, Joe attempts to gain the upper hand and save Nina, even as the stress of everything causes him to further break down psychologically.
Comparable on the surface level to the many stories before it about damaged veterans-turned vigilantes (ranging from Taxi Driver to The Punisher), You Were Never Really Here is far less plot driven in its approach. Ramsay, who also wrote the adapted screenplay, is more interested in pulling viewers into Joe's fractured worldview through non-linear storytelling techniques (like flashbacks) and capturing small details through her camera that offer insight into his state of mind at any given moment. The result is an often poetic work of cinema that avoids the sensationalistic tendencies of its genre, serving up a more thoughtful and sensitive examination of psychological trauma and masculine identity in the process. You Were Never Really Here further offers the catharsis of watching sexual predators and men who abuse their power get their just desserts, yet acknowledges the cost of violence and emotional pain that comes with it.
You Were Never Really Here is also handsomely photographed by Ramsay and her cinematographer Thomas Townend (Attack the Block), bringing the film's grimy vision of modern New York City to life in a grounded yet captivating fashion. While Ramsay (as she has in her previous work) tends to go overboard with the visual symbolism at times, she often favors subtly in the way that she carefully frames individual scenes and communicates much of the story through implication rather than explicit details. The movie's scenes of violence are the best examples of this, as Ramsay and her We Need to Talk About Kevin editor Joe Bini cut these sequences together in such a way that relatively little carnage is shown directly onscreen. This allows the film to avoid becoming exploitative in its depiction of Joe's vigilantism and instead keeps the focus on the gruesome aftermath of his behavior.
Phoenix won the top prize at the 2017 Cannes Film festival for his performance here, and with good reason. You Were Never Really Here is a showcase for the actor that allows him to demonstrate a whole lot of emotions and feelings through his facial tics and body language, rather than his spoken words. At the same time, because so much of the movie takes place from Joe's fractured perspective, the actors around Phoenix are given far less to do by comparison. This in turn makes it more difficult to become emotionally invested in the people in Joe's life, save for arguably his mother, who gets a few touching moments with her son. To be fair though, that's partly intentional and a natural outcome of how Ramsay approaches the story being told here, for better or worse.
While You Were Never Really Here could be seen as an example of style over substance for the way it prioritizes technique over plot and character, it's arguably a case of style being the substance. From its strong craftsmanship to the unnerving yet gorgeous score by Jonny Greenwood, the film is an impressive accomplishment for Ramsay behind the camera and gives Phoenix another notch to add to his belt of performances. At the same time, it doesn't manage to combine arthouse filmmaking with more widely accessible storytelling as well as other films and TV shows in its genre have before it. For this reason, You Were Never Really Here is another noteworthy offering from Ramsay, but not one that can necessarily be recommended to general audiences.
On the other hand, You Were Never Really's genre makes it perhaps the most accessible movie that Ramsay has made to date. The filmmaker infamously attempted to put her spin on a more traditional genre a few years back with the western Jane Got a Gun, before she departed on the first day of shooting over creative differences and alleged fraudulent behavior on the part of the film's producers. You Were Never Really Here thus gives Ramsay the chance to do what she aspired to do with Jane Got a Gun and tackle what is typically viewed as a more masculine film genre, which she does with great skill and precision. For related reasons, it makes for a nice entry point into her larger body of work for newcomers, and gives her longtime fans all the more reason to look forward to whatever project she decides to work on next.
You Were Never Really Here is now playing in a semi-wide U.S. theatrical release. It is 89 minutes long and is rated R for strong violence, disturbing and grisly images, language, and brief nudity.
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