You Were Never Really Here: A Crushing Slow Burn
Review by Aaron Haughton
Six years after the masterfully tense psychological thriller We Need To Talk About Kevin, Scottish filmmaker Lynne Ramsay marks her return with You Were Never Really Here, an enigmatic slow burning neo-noir, based off the novella of the same name by Jonathan Ames. Ramsay, who is more concerned about the man behind the hit than it is the hit itself, delivers a wickedly dark character study veiled as an action film that still manages, despite its efforts to deny the gratification typically found in an action thriller, to be a unique, viscerally gripping cinematic experience that will hit you with the blunt force of a ball-pein hammer.
Equal parts beguiling, enigmatic, and brutal, You Were Never Really Here is a sawtooth to bone 90 minutes that is sometimes difficult to watch, but even even more difficult to look away from. It strikes an atmosphere of Lynchian proportions and cultivating an experience similar to Nicolas Winding Refn's Only God Forgives, which can inherently brings along a certain level of frustration depending on your moviegoing sensibilities. Regardless of if you love the film or hate it, the deeply heart-wrenching and haunting mood that hangs over this dark and brooding character study is impossible to ignore, and in many ways, the film is a doorway beyond which very little light shines. But there is still light, dim and flickering as it may be.
The plot, a story about a man who stumbles into a larger conspiracy when rescuing a young girl from a human traffic ring, is relatively commonplace for pulpish noir and practically nonexistent here, taking a backseat to the hitman (played by Joachim Phoenix), who is barely hanging on to his existence, and desperately trying to break the chains of his past filled with traumatic events that come through in the style of broken shards glass, of which violence was the sole cause. The film is dead set on taking you for a grimy ride, but it wants to do so on its own terms, and it will spoon feed you nothing along the way, delivering major plot points in a hushed mumblecore fashion and skirting convention at every turn, which is both its alluring and alienating characteristic.
It's very easy to view You Were Never Really Here as the modernized companion piece to Scorsese's 1976 film Taxi Driver because they hit the same narrative notes; however, YWNRH manages to place us directly into the headspace, whereas Taxi Driver is a bit more distant and removed from its protagonist. Joe (Joachim Phoenix) is a much different man than Travis Bickle. He wants to live and be happy — we see this in a few of the moments he shares with his mother — but the past traumas that continually consume him have him in such a dark depressed state that he also longs to die. It's less to do about the harsh and scummy metropolitan environment, than it is about how the past affects our ability to truly live in the present. How Joe searches for his absolution is where YWNRH gets its compelling edge.
Joachim Phoenix, who I hold up in the highest regard and compare to the prestigious Daniel Day-Lewis, is absolutely fantastic here and delivers a career defining performance. I never doubted him for a second and could feel the darkness and trauma within him in my core. Just as insinuated in the title, Phoenix is never really there because he's so absorbed into this character, and the result of his commitment is nothing less than powerful.
Composer Jonny Greenwood has once again crafted a magnificent score that pulls a complete 180 to the classical instrumentations he provided for Paul Thomas Anderson's Phantom Thread, returning to his more avant-garde roots. The score for YWNRH is lush with strings that span from ethereal to abrasive and distorted guitar and synth manipulations that provides a gateway into Joe's soul. Paul Davies provides further insight and clarity into Joe's deteriorating frame of mind with the film's blistering sound design of squelching trains and traffic, which embody the trauma that looms over him at all times.
Hopefully, we don't have to wait another 6 years for another Ramsay project to come to fruition. Her craft in YWNRH is an absolute tour de force full of brutality and fragility that lingers long after its over. She continues to prove that she's one of the greatest female directors working today, and YWNRH is well worth your time.
Rating: 4.5 ball-pein hammers outta 5.
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