A traumatized veteran, unafraid of violence, tracks down missing girls for a living. When a job spins out of control, Joe’s nightmares overtake him as a conspiracy is uncovered leading to what may be his death trip or his awakening.
Scottish director Lynne Ramsay doesn’t make a lot of films, but when she does you tend to take notice, and 7 years after ‘We Need To Talk About Kevin’, she returns with another unique film based on a Jonathan Ames novella. ‘You Were Never Really Here’ is a taut thriller about Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), an armed forces veteran who now works as a hitman for a living, usually tracking down missing children. The film has a plot, involving a kidnapped child (Ekaterina Samsonov) and a political conspiracy, but Ramsay is less interested in how this plays out and more in how this situation manifests itself on Joe’s mind. Joaquin Phoenix plays Joe as a deeply troubled man, impacted badly by his PTSD and constantly afflicted by flashbacks to harrowing moments from his past. One of the first times we meet him he’s trying to commit suicide, almost half heartedly, and things don’t get much better from here.
Joaquin Phoenix is one of the finest actors in the business and he’s outstanding in an intense display that simultaneously conveys the mental weight each traumatising experience has on Joe and a casual indifference at everything surrounding him. The camera stalks Joe as he goes about his business, putting us right in frame with him and his demons and Phoenix is a deeply watchable presence at all times. Travis Bickle and ‘Taxi Driver’ is the obvious touchstone but this is a more surreal tale, dropping us into Joe’s fractured state of mind and leaving it unclear if everything we witness is really happening or a hallucination in Joe’s head. It’s an unsettling film with a narrative touching on child trafficking and abuse and brutal violence permeate the screen throughout, but Ramsay deploys sharp editing and quick cuts to pull the camera away from the most violent acts, lingering long enough to let the audience know what’s happened but sparing the gory details. The pulsating sound design is outstanding, led by another fine score from Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, who is building quite the impressive resume as a film composer and the film is well paced, coming in at a lean 90 minutes.
‘You Were Never Really Here’ is a unique take on a hired hitman story, focusing on the toll it takes on a person, both mentally and physically, at the expense of the plot mechanics, and through Joaquin Phoenix’s compelling performance, this is a memorable film that will stick in my mind for a long time.
Directed By: Lynne Ramsay
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Ekaterina Samsonov, Alex Manette, John Doman, Judith Roberts and Alessandro Nivola