By Andrew Cripe, Movie Critic
Top to bottom, scene-to-scene, Lynne Ramsay’s psychological revenge thriller ‘You Were Never Really Here’ is astonishing, brutal, heartbreaking, terrifying, and completely unforgettable. It demands more than one viewing not because it is obtuse or elusive, but because it is an emotional trip unlike any other cinematic offering so far this year.
We meet Joe (a masterful Joaquin Phoenix, who won an award at Cannes for his performance), a man who gets paid to find missing girls and kill their abductors. We learn through nightmarish, blink-and-you’ll-miss flashbacks that Joe is suffering from extreme PTSD, stemming from his service in the military, FBI, and personal experiences with childhood trauma. He still lives with his slowly declining mother (a scene-stealing Judith Roberts) out of guilt for not being able to protect her from his abusive father when he was a child. Joe gets a job to find the daughter of a politician, and from this point he is propelled into one of the darkest, most emotionally stirring narratives in recent memory.
What’s fascinating about the film, and a testament to the powers of both Lynne Ramsay and editor Joe Bini, is how much it achieves in such a short runtime. The film is 89 minutes and conveys everything it needs to and more in that space. A lesser director would try to cram a plethora of unnecessary scenes that explain, to the syllable, what is happening instead of having confidence in what a single, expressive moment can contain.
Ramsay wastes nothing, and several key shots tell entire stories in seconds, these ranking as the film’s most hypnotic moments. Ramsay knows that the best filmmaking should never be typical or regular, so she throws caution to the wind with her direction. There is an intimacy and thrilling discomfort to her shots, the finest ones surgically ripping into the viewer’s hearts with dreamlike artistry. The cinematography by Thomas Townend and the score by Jonny Greenwood work in tandem in creating and sustaining a mood that is oppressively grim yet also languid to unsettling degrees, constantly keeping the viewer feeling as though they’ve wandered into the most disturbing regions of the human condition, where evil and the possibility for chaos lie dormant like vipers, waiting to strike.
‘You Were Never Really Here’ is brutal, but it is also one of the most nakedly emotional films out there. The vulnerability of Phoenix’s performance has the film on eggshells, always on the verge of collapsing into despair. He is an unhinged, wounded hybrid of Travis Bickle from ‘Taxi Driver’ and Ryan Gosling’s unnamed loner in ‘Drive.’ The loneliness and isolation of Joe is tangible, and when he resorts to acts of extreme violence, it seems as though the fabric of his reality is being torched.
Another strength of the movie is that it does not indulge in mindless violence, instead exploring the ramifications and irreversibility of it. Ramsay depicts cruelty and harm as something that tears the world asunder rather than treating it as a cool visual device.
‘You Were Never Really Here’ has potential to stay with the viewer for a long time after they’ve seen it. It defies dismissal by constantly conjuring up feelings of exhilaration from the sheer daring of it all. It takes plot threads that are not original and wraps them around a visual style and artistic control that subverts them into being special and unique again. Find a theater that is showing this and hold on for dear life.