Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) is a hired killer suffering from PTSD from his time in the army and FBI, as well as his violent childhood. Taking care of his elderly mother (Judith Roberts), he gets hired to save a senator’s daughter (Ekaterina Samsonov) from forced prostitution. After rescuing her, Joe finds himself entangled in a conspiracy that threatens to unravel his entire life.
Adapted from Jonathan Ames’ novella, You were Never Really Here is the latest film from Lynne Ramsey, arguably best known for her 2011 feature We Need to Talk About Kevin. This is her follow up feature length work from Kevin, and received a seven-minute standing ovation at the premiere in Cannes. This was more than well deserved. You were Never Really Here is a probing and uncomfortable insights into the consequences of both violence and facing those systems that uphold it.
Joaquin Phoenix, as expected, is chillingly great. He brings his usual raw emotional resonance and internalised depths, while adding an uncomfortable edge and intensity to the character of Joe. It’s extremely difficult to know just exactly what Joe will do, owing not only to Phoenix’ performance but the excellent writing on display. The movie is barely over 90 minutes long, so it’s a compact and fast experience for a story that delves so densely into a character’s internal viewpoint. Yet it uses every second allotted to it to flesh out this person into a three-dimensional character, even with Pheonix muttering very little.
The real star here is the editing. Joe Bini not only cuts this into a cohesive whole, but also manages to do the double-barreled duty of being disorienting and confusing. You are truly lost in the head of the protagonist as he tries to deal with not only the mess he inadvertently landed himself in, but his own troubled and deeply disturbed psyche. The film just expertly integrates reality with the subconscious, told masterfully by how the sound design and spliced images interweave to tell a masterful tapestry of a soul truly broken down by violence. This comparison is overused, and this film should stand out on its own, but not since Taxi Driver has a broken mind been so expertly displayed onscreen.
You Were Never Really Here is a masterpiece of cinema. It’s morose, intelligently told, gripping, shocking, and is an amazingly adept character study with one of the best actors who has ever lived. The score is suitably haunting and shocking when it needs to be, with Jonny Greenwood just knowing how to capture the tone all the way through. Lynne Ramsey has created a film that needs to be celebrated, and I cannot wait to see it again. Even if it will disturb throughout.