Film Review – You Were Never Really Here
You Were Never Really Here
Director Lynn Ramsay‘s output is as challenging as it is sporadic. In 16 years, she has only helmed 4 feature films, all relatively (and deceivingly) minor, while all packing one hell of a wallop. I haven’t seen her debut, Morvern Callar, since its release in 2002, for instance, nor could I attempt to recall the plot without embarrassing myself, but I remember the way it made me feel after. She’s got a way of doing that.
Her latest continues her trend of low-key depravity. Adapted from Jonathan Ames‘ novella, You Were Never Really Here stars Joaquin Phoenix as Joe, a combat veteran whose main gig appears to be tracking down abducted young women and beating their captors’ skulls in. Don’t knock it ’til you’ve tried it.
Discussing plot points of a movie designed to be anything but coherent seems almost beside the point, but here we go anyway (it’s my job, after all): State Senator Albert Votto (Alex Manette) enlists Joe’s help to rescue his daughter, a runaway who has fallen into the hands of pesky sex traffickers. Joe’s motivation remains purposely vague, although we do receive a healthy showering of flashbacks.
To say Phoenix’s approach to Joe is understated is understated. Hulking in stature, unkempt, scarred, his dialogue is mostly comprised of grunts and squints. Early, playful scenes with his ailing mother hint at a man who might have been but Ramsay is less interested in filling in the blanks than she is creating more.
This can be frustrating, and in this case often is, but one can’t help but be struck, and pleasantly distracted, by the visual smorgasbord on display. Not something you can say about just any movie with a protagonist who wields a ball peen hammer.
Take for instance, the brutally violent centerpiece at the film’s midway point. It’s all captured on grainy surveillance footage. You could say that’s a cheap move but to abruptly pull back from the action for a static shot like that enhances the bluntness of the violence.
For as brooding as the tone is, there are some light, welcome touches. One off-kilter scene in particular, in which Joe and a combatant lay bloodied and battered next to one another on a kitchen floor while holding hands and singing a retched 70’s pop tune, managed to embrace the inherent strangeness of the film in a unique and exhilarating way. It could have easily missed but hit me where it hurts.
All in all, though, do I recommend seeing You Were Never Really Here? I don’t know. What does your Friday look like? Phoenix, no surprise, turns in a powerhouse performance and I will always admire Ramsay’s take-it-or-leave it gumption and pay attention what she’s up to next. That being said? This mere 90 minute feature felt a little long in the tooth.