Film Review: You Were Never Really Here

Lynne Ramsay retains her status as one of our greatest living filmmakers with 'You Were Never Really Here.'
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Lynne Ramsay follows up 2011’s We Need to Talk About Kevin with another bona-fide masterpiece in You Were Never Really Here, a brutal, sharp jaunt through the psyche of a deeply traumatized man. Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) makes a living of rescuing missing girls from bad men. He more or less floats through life unencumbered and unfeeling, his only connection with his elderly mother (Judith Roberts) who, together with Joe, survived years of abuse at the hands of Joe’s late father.

But a job—involving the teenage daughter (Ekaterina Samsonov) of an aspiring politician (Alex Manette)—goes wrong, as they tend to, sending Joe down a blood-soaked path involving a prostitution ring, hired killers and maybe something of a conspiracy.

The plot, as described above, could belong to any number of direct-to-VOD bores starring a washed-up B-lister who desperately needs to pay off a mortgage or two. But in the hands of Ramsay—who adapted Jonathan Ames’ novella for the screen in addition to directing—Joe’s story is transformed into a vital, visceral examination of isolation and pain.

There’s action, too, of course. Clocking in at a slim 85 minutes, You Were Never Here has been stripped of every ounce of fat by Ramsay, lending the film a sense of forward momentum that never lets up. On one level, the film is a bloody, pulpy, B-movie-inspired action thriller in which a grizzled, uber-masculine hero races against the clock to save an innocent victim. On another level, it’s a subversion of those same tropes. Joe, unlike the proudly “lone wolf” antiheroes of films past, is physically and emotionally vulnerable.

Joe craves connection and a sense of worth. Every frame of DP Thomas Townend’s footage and note of supervising sound editor Paul Davies’ sound design bears this out. Joe is frequently pictured in something of a bubble—isolated, with the visual and aural cacophony of New York City taking place just beyond his reach, less alluring than intimidating. Sound is an often-underappreciated element of film. Davies’ sound design, along with Jonny Greenwood’s score, makes You Were Never Really Here one of a handful of films in recent memory that truly illustrates the heights to which sound in film can ascend.

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