The following is a review of You Were Never Really Here — Directed by Lynne Ramsay.
After I saw Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here the day before yesterday, I decided to reread one of Roger Ebert’s excellent reviews of Taxi Driver — the Scorsese classic which this Lynne Ramsay film, rightly, has been compared to a lot. In the review, Ebert smartly noted that Travis Bickle’s response to his own iconic line “Are you talking to me?” — “Well, I’m the only one here,” — was the truest line in a film about loneliness and alienation.
That reading of Bickle’s own response made me think about Ramsay’s film, or, rather, its title. I think there are two ways to read the title. One of these is that it refers to the way that the central character — Joe (played by Joaquin Phoenix), who is, essentially, a hired gun — is a brutal force who disappears into the night — out of sight, never to be seen again.
The other way I think one can read the title, which, indeed, is how I read the title, is telegraphed in the film’s late diner scene, which I won’t spoil. However, I think that scene reconnects the film to the title, which, in my reading, gets to this idea that society turns a blind eye to those affected by trauma and abuse, as well as those suffering from suicidal thoughts.
Joe is one of those forgotten individuals. When he isn’t ‘on the job,’ Joe is little more than a periphery character — an unkempt fringe person who you might pass on the city streets without realizing the trauma that has come to define him as a person.
Joe is a disheveled, damaged, and PTSD-stricken war veteran that, during the day, looks after his elderly mother. At night, however, he is a hired gun who rescues underage girls from abuse and sex-trafficking. In You Were Never Really Here, Joe is hired by a New York State Senator who needs him to find his abducted daughter, who we later find out is in a brothel for wealthy individuals.
The Senator emphasizes that he wants the people responsible to get hurt, and Joe is the right man for that job. Before long Joe grabs a hammer and heads out to the brothel. However, this particular job doesn’t go entirely as planned, and, suddenly, his day-to-day life is upended by corrupt police officers and corrupt politicians.
When it all comes down to it, You Were Never Really Here — as has already been established — feels inspired by Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. But the way I would describe this film is to say that this is an art-house version of Pierre Morel’s Taken that is, however, more concerned with the effects of abuse and trauma than action or revenge. On top of that, this art-house Taken is inhabited by a central character that feels just as lost as Travis Bickle.
However, You Were Never Really Here isn’t shy about pointing out the damage done to Joe’s character and his soul. Although the flashing flashback shots depicting verbal and physical abuse — and other character-specific trauma — appear in a series of short and sharp shots, these scenes aren’t entirely gorily detailed. You get an idea of what happened to him as a soldier, and you are painfully aware of the punishment inflicted on him and his mother back when he grew up in a abusive home.
Speaking of punishment, Lynne Ramsay’s film is very violent. Joe is a character who gets someone else’s brains splattered all over his face, but also someone who is brutal and uncompromising when he is on the job. If you stand in his way, you are going down. But I have to say that I was very impressed with how Ramsay chose to show the violence in a stylistically interesting way.
You see, sometimes in this film the violence happens off-screen, and when Joe attacks the aforementioned brothel it is shown in a haunting way via surveillance cameras that shift from camera to camera rapidly. Sometimes Joe walks into frame right when the camera shifts, and, at other times, the CCTV switches to a surveillance camera on which you see Joe brutally knocking out some pervert while a little girl in a nightmarish, unresponsive way walks out of the room with no sense of direction.
This is a film that, for obvious reasons, needs the central character to be played by someone able to make thunderstorms out of even the smallest scenes. Joaquin Phoenix really gets what makes this character tick, and his performance makes sure long stares into a mirror are gripping.
On top of all of this, You Were Never Really Here features a great sound design, a solid, sometimes stressful, score from Jonny Greenwood, as well as some truly haunting imagery — including one scene in which bodies are falling deeper and deeper into the water and out of view.
You Were Never Really Here is Joaquin Phoenix’s film, which Ramsay smartly opts not to make a simple Taken-esque action story. Instead, Ramsay goes for a character study of someone that has gone off the deep end — a fringe person who longs for a final resting place precisely because of the shattered psyche that his childhood and his time as a soldier has given him.
The relatively short but deliberately paced feature film, which is actually based on a novella, doesn’t hold your hand, and its flashbacks are often laid out for you to piece together. But You Were Never Really Here is absolutely a gripping cinematic achievement that deserves to be seen in full theaters. Unfortunately, when I saw the film I was the only one there.
9.5 out of 10
– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen