Hidden Gem: You Were Never Really Here

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Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here is the ultimate feel-bad, must-see film, based on Jonathan Ames’ novella of the same name. Joaquin Phoenix plays Joe, an ex-officer and troubled vigilante that takes on a high-profile paedophilia ring to rescue a city senator’s daughter. Phoenix’s character suffers from assumed PTSD and depression because of childhood trauma, his past career and crushing present. The film is harrowing in nature due to the full-frontal emotional turmoil experienced by Joe, so immersive and convincing that it becomes the focal point. 

Stylistically, we are dropped into an exceedingly seedy urban landscape decorated with neon. Joe lives with his fragile, dementia-stricken mother. Freud would have a field day on our protagonist, the term ‘mummy issues’ coming to mind, emphasised with explicit reference to Hitchcock’s Psycho. Can you hear Bernard Herrmann’s ‘The Murder’ ringing in your ears? The inclusion of this iconic track offers a clever medium through which to analyse Joe’s emotional fragility by proxy.

Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood provides the kind of cutting score that may make you wince every now and then. Strong synths and bass carry the film’s moody tone. There are harmonious, slightly joyous moments of score which, though still uncomfortably jolty, imbue an occasional sunshiny atmosphere. It’s punchy, but not in an arrogant fashion as it allows Thomas Townend’s cinematography to speak for itself. 

The film’s frequent fight scenes are an assault on the senses, with extreme violence and gore punctuated by shattering glass. Sketchy CCTV footage captures Joe as he moves through security men mindlessly like the Terminator. Yet the scenes that really make an impression are not action-packed, but those that are quietly unsettling with a light dusting of arthouse aesthetic. From the nemesis sinisterly playing with a dollhouse to an attempted suicide, Townend’s camerawork is simply captivating in its fluidity and cool-toned colours.

The narrative feels extremely topical with more and more stories coming out of accusations towards powerful men involved in sexual abuse scandals. The coalescence of one of society’s darkest taboos with Joe’s emotional turbulence teeters on the edge of overwhelming the audience as we struggle to accept the grim possibilities of human nature. Phoenix’s performance is a far cry from past endeavours such as Gladiator. His ability to flesh out the depths of self-loathing and trauma demands the viewer’s attention. Likewise, Ekaterina Samsonov’s performance as Nina is impressive in terms of placidity and numbness. The two together make a morbidly adorable murderous duo, weathered by their horrific ordeals.

Deviating from the source material, the film is let down slightly by its ending. The original is twistier, leaning further into Joe’s deviant persona. Ramsay takes an ambiguous, phantasmagorical route and, for the first time, the viewer is left feeling detached from Joe’s psyche. Considering the weight previously placed in the pathology of the protagonist, the ending leaves us uncertain what to believe and how to feel. Nonetheless, You Were Never Really Here remains an essential watch. This film is an overbearing, suffocating and generally unpleasant experience, blurring the lines between real time, paranoia and delusion. It will stay with you for days on end.

Watch the trailer below:

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