Fantastic visual storytelling and a great lead performance makes Lynne Ramsay's latest film a memorable experience
Based on the book of the same name by Jonathon Ames, You Were Never Really Here is the latest film from director Lynne Ramsay and stars Joaquin Phoenix. A truly cinematic experience, the film is a testament to great visual storytelling and is enhanced by what is an excellent lead performance. The film follows Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), a gun for hire who specialises in finding missing children. A deeply damaged individual, Joe is brutal in his line of work and proves so when he is tasked to find a senator’s daughter named Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov). However, it soon becomes clear that there is more to this job than Joe first realised, and as he tries to see the task through, he struggles to fend off the ever-present demons of his past.
The film, whilst still based on the book and clearly following a set story, is very much centred around Joe, as we’re journeying through the world from his perspective and getting a look at his fragile psyche. Jarring flashbacks give further insight into Joe’s traumatic past and help give us some idea as to why he has taken it upon himself to live such a brutal life. Whilst the plot involving the missing girl is interesting in itself, it’s certainly secondary to Joe’s personal journey, which culminates in a satisfying, memorable finale.
Joaquin Phoenix is superb as Joe, giving a reserved yet effective performance. He carries himself with a definite sadness throughout the film, even in the rare moments where Joe appears to be happy, and fully sells the idea that this character is one at his wit’s end. Whilst the role demands that Phoenix be cold and merciless at times, there are also a handful of moments in which the actor’s raw emotion powers through, and when they do, it makes for some both frightening and touching scenes.
You Were Never Really Here handles some incredibly dark subject matter, including paedophilia, excessive violence and suicide. Despite its decidedly harsh nature though, the film is rarely that graphic. It is instead more about the implied violence that is carried out, with clever choices such as using CCTV cameras to show Joe ‘at work’ being used to mask some of his actions. However, this choice makes the occasional outburst of shocking, graphic violence that much more effective as we are not being constantly shown an all-out bloodbath.
Lynne Ramsay succeeds in bringing a certain style and tone to the film. Much of You Were Never Really Here is very uncomfortable to watch, with a lot of this being down to the combination of striking visuals mixed with Johnny Greenwood’s unnerving score. Ramsay also does a fantastic job of telling the story through visuals rather than words. Dialogue is sparse, but the excellent camerawork helps to convey Joe’s struggles in an ambiguous way that both respects the viewer and trusts that they will understand what’s going on.
Overall, You Were Never Really Here is another solid film for both Phoenix and Ramsay. It successfully captivates you through the journey of its damaged protagonist and conveys his story in a way that serves as a great example of visual storytelling.
You Were Never Really Here (2018), directed by Lynne Ramsay, is distributed in the UK by Studio Canal, certificate 15.