Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here is a delicious dark dose of originality accented by a narrative rife with violence, loneliness, and trauma.
While Ramsay’s directorial resume is far from lengthy (You Were Never Really Here is the director’s fourth feature film in 20 years), the award-winning director is very consistent with the tone of her projects. She seeks to take the audience on a dark and twisted journey into portions of our souls we dare not mention. How does trauma shape a man? Can your pain be eased by inflicting it on others?
Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) is a man who is shrouded in mystery. It’s strongly hinted that he has a military background, but it is never fully confirmed. At first, Joe’s motives are unclear, but as the narrative unfolds, it becomes crystal clear. To make money, he does odd jobs for an investigative firm and only seems to take on the darkest of cases (usually recovering a kidnapped victim). At various times, we are treated to flashbacks of Phoenix’s character trekking through shipping bins full of underaged children being sold on the black market. His sense of what’s right is driven by ridding the world of brutality. The cases he takes on seem predictable, and his methods for reaching a desirable outcome are often barbaric. However, what happens when Joe is faced with a case that takes an unexpected turn?
The action sequences in the film are white-hot. Cinematographer Thomas Townend is a big reason why, as he used camera angles to create the illusion of seeing things through the eyes of Joe and his attackers. There is something bone-chilling about seeing Joe’s perspective as he creeps up on these kidnappers and bludgeons them with a hammer. Townend is effective in his use of close-ups which allows us to see the pain tormenting our hero.
Phoenix’s portrayal of Joe is mesmerizing, and little of it had to do with the gory brand of justice he exacts on others. What everyone has to realize is You Were Really Never Here isn’t some knock-off Death Wish; it’s a film about the effects of trauma. Joe’s soul has been crushed due to the horrors he witnessed as a soldier. The only way out of the darkness which surrounds his life is to try and help others.
The pacing of You Were Never Really Here is spot-on. Ramsay’s adaptation remains faithful to the source material yet allows the filmmaker some artistic license. The most critical portion of the film deals with the impact of trauma on one’s psyche, and that indeed isn’t lost in translation. Had they tried to embellish any portion of the source material, it would have made the storyline appear generic.
You Were Really Never Here has a hypnotic flow to it which lulls audiences into feeling safe, and it’s at that moment Ramsay rips your heart out, leaving the audience feeling emotionally scarred. Overall, this is a fantastic film which defies any labels and blazes its own path. With all the hoopla surrounding Avengers: Infinity War, it would be a great time to see one of the best releases of the year (so far).