Published on April 11th, 2018 | by Craig Silliphant


You Were Never Really Here

You Were Never Really Here is a stunning work from Lynne Ramsay, starring Joaquin Phoenix at his best, with an amazing score by Jonny Greenwood.

From the opening seconds, You Were Never Really Here grabs you by the shirt collar and yanks you in on its own grim terms. The movie is based on the book by Jonathan Ames (HBO’s Bored to Death) and directed without fear by Lynne Ramsay (Morvern Caller, We Need to Talk About Kevin).

Joaquin Phoenix gives good beard, playing Joe, a man who tracks down missing girls for a living. He is a soft-spoken sort that has a deep well of violence within him. He’s a bulky panther, stalking around and handing out harsh justice in the form of a hammer to the forehead. When he takes a case that has deeper roots than he bargained for, he has to tackle a conspiracy while reckoning with his own PTSD.

Ramsay references Hitchcock’s Psycho pretty early in the film. There are marked differences between Joe, Norman Bates, and their relationships to their mothers, but there are some similarities as well. Joe is taking care of his mother, who suffers from dementia, and he clearly loves her, which offers a good (if not way too obvious) juxtaposition to the searing violence of his vocation. It lets us humanize him.

I can be hot and cold on Phoenix, often depending more on the movie and less on him as an actor, but I loved him in this one. He mumbles his way through scenes, exerting both brutality and kindness, a certain sadness and damage always swimming on his face. With a character like this (and its gritty New York setting) it’s no surprise that a few critics have mentioned Taxi Driver when talking about You Were Never Really Here.

I have to mention the sound design and the score of this film. It’s a well-directed, visceral movie (and a tight 90-minute run time, which I love). But the visuals are sent into the stratosphere thanks to some Baby Driver-esque sound design, little moments and transitions matched to sound or music, as well as Jonny Greenwood’s amazing score. Greenwood scored two of my so-far best movies of 2018, this one and Phantom Thread (yes, I’m aware Phantom Thread was technically released at the end of 2017, but it didn’t go wide enough for me to see it until 2018).

I’m not sure if I’m inferring too much, but the film seems to borrow from, check off, or otherwise reference a lot of other movies, sometimes vaguely, sometimes outright. This pastiche reminds me a bit of Tarantino, not in its style or how the story is told, but in how many other films you can glimpse within in the film. I mentioned Psycho several times, Taxi Driver, and Baby Driver. I’d add films like The Wrestler and Three Days of The Condor. And let’s face it — this movie could be a double feature with Drive. The lead in each movie is an expert at something in the crime world and takes on a case that gets personal. Gosling’s special skill is driving. Joe’s ‘driving’ is bashing in the skulls of pedos. None of this pastiche is a comment on the film itself; whatever it takes, it makes its own.

I also thought about Dirty Harry during this film, in terms of whether or not Joe’s propensity for such brutal violence could be considered problematic. Dirty Harry was a right wing avatar that was positioned as the last sane man with a big gun keeping society from being ravaged by crime. As time goes by, it becomes more apparent that ‘crime’ back then meant mostly black people, painted as thugs — what the mainstream moviegoers were most afraid of. Audiences saw Harry as always justified in his extreme violence (murder, really) because it was okay to kill these thugs.

Joe also uses the most extreme violence to do away with the bad guys, in fact, often in a dirtier and more tactile way. We as an audience don’t just allow his violence, we cheer him on, because of our distaste of sexual slavery — due process be damned. Of course, I’m not suggesting that we need to be nicer to sexual slavers, or that this will ever be racist in the way that Dirty Harry is. I’m also not attempting to poo-poo violence on film. It simply occurred to me during the movie. It made me wonder what this blood thirst said about us — about me, as a viewer. It definitely brings shades of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, where he exploits this blood thirst and then turns it around on us.

Uh…woolgathering and tangents aside, as much as I loved this movie, I had some issues with it. First off, some of it was confusing. And I don’t mean the pieces of Joe’s fractured psyche that we get hints of. I get that part. I don’t need a roadmap. But there were several scenes that never fully made sense to me. I need to see it again to see if those answers were there and I somehow missed them. Without giving any spoilers, one involves a suicide. Why does this suicide happen? Was it a murder? I’m not sure the answer is important in the scope of the story, but it felt sloppy when combined with other pieces that lacked basic storytelling clarity.

My other issue with the movie was, for as cool and iconic as it was, for as harrowing as some of the situations and violence were, parts of it were trying too hard. There were certain scenes or situations that were a little too cheesy or on-the-nose for me. Sometimes just little moments, or sometimes bigger points — I already mentioned the save the cat trope of taking care of his sweet old mother as the counterpoint to his violence. Don’t get me wrong, I think their relationship is well handled, but it is probably is one of the most on-the-nose ways they could show his humanity in shorthand.

These nitpicks are minor though. You Were Never Really Here is a thrilling work of film with an actor and director (and heck, a composer) at the peak of their games. I already want to see it again, not just to answer some of my questions, but also to experience it once more.

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is a D-level celebrity with delusions of grandeur. A writer, critic, creative director, editor, broadcaster, and occasional filmmaker, his thoughts have appeared on radio, television, in print, and on the web. He is a juror on the Polaris Music Prize and the Juno Awards. He loves Saskatoon. He has horrible night terrors and apocalyptic dreams.

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