You Were Never Really Here (2018)
Directed by: Lynne Ramsay
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Judith Roberts & Ekaterina Samsonov
You Were Never Really Here is one of the most visceral, heart pounding movies I’ve ever seen. It tells the story of Joe, a combat veteran who is living with PTSD. He works as a mercenary who rescues girls from sex trafficking and oh he likes hammers.
Lynne Ramsay wastes no time flinging the audience into the movie as we are assaulted with quick flashes of images. A man suffocating on a plastic bag, a young boy staring directly down the camera lens, a picture of a young Asian girl. All the while we hear a whispering voice counting down. Throughout the film we get more and more of these brief images and countdowns and that is all you are given as far as Joe’s background is concerned. It is very reminiscent of Ramsay’s last film, We Need to Talk about Kevin, in that the audience is given a lot of vague images and scenes, but not until the end of the film do we actually see what these images mean. The big difference between these two films is that in We Need to Talk about Kevin we get a clear scene of Ezra Miller shooting up his high school with a bow and arrow and everything is explained to us. In You Were Never Really Here however, nothing is explained. You are given a lot of tiny pieces of information and that is all. Some might find the lack of explanation frustrating, but I loved that Ramsay gives you what you need in order to understand Joe and nothing more.
There are three things I want to talk about with this movie. Joaquin Phoenix, the action and a water burial.
So Joaquin Phoenix is hands down one of my favorite actors of all time. He would be on my Mt. Rushmore. He is having a HELL of a run right now with films like Inherent Vice, Her and The Master, but this performance is a real stand out. If there’s one thing Joaquin knows how to play it’s a damaged individual. He trudges through this film with so much weight on his shoulders and he has these dead eyes that explain exactly where this man is in his life. He has seen true horrors and is constantly contemplating suicide, but he has to take care of his elderly mother so he just lives with it. There is very little dialogue in You Were Never Really Here so a lot of emotion has to be conveyed physically, something Joaquin can do in his sleep. He has to essentially carry the entire film as none of the other roles except for maybe his mother have much to them at all. Even Nina, the girl he saves, has very little to say or do for the story. Also Joaquin is enormous in this movie. I’m used to him being a shrimp of a man in movies like The Master and Walk the Line. He kind of has the build of one of the guys from the worlds strongest man competitions. He’s super beefy and his arms are pretty damn big for Joaquin. Just another mind blowing performance by one of humanities most talented creatures.
I found myself smiling so much at the “action” scenes in You Were Never Really Here. Joe is a big combat veteran who goes around smashing peoples heads in with a hammer in order to save little girls. There’s a lot of potential there for some iconic fight scenes right? Well Lynne Ramsay basically gives you the middle finger and just glazes over all that. In what could have been a huge, well choreographed action piece, Joe enters a brothel and takes out two guards, a naked man who was up to some truly disgusting business and rescues Nina. Most movies would have cued the bad ass fight music and splatted gore all over the walls as the camera moves in between the combatants, but what does Lynne Ramsay do? Oh she gives you shitty security camera footage and cuts most of the action out while playing old timey music. It’s honestly one of my favorite things about this movie. The scene just cycles through several different security cameras and you get to see some of Joe’s assault on the brothel. At one point you see Joe walking down the hall, a security guard appears to be turning the corner to confront him and then we just jump to the next camera in which nothing is happening in an empty hallway. Jump to a few more cameras until we return to the security guard dead on the ground and Joe is just calmly moving along. It’s fucking brilliant and she does this throughout the entire film. There’s one altercation between Joe and a cop that we see everything, but the camera is so shaky you can’t really tell what’s happening. It’s like Lynne Ramsay knows exactly what you want from an action movie, but refuses to give it to you.
The last big thing I want to talk about is the water burial of Joe’s mother. This is my favorite scene of the entire film. Joe’s mother is killed. He puts on a nice suit, puts her in a black garbage bag and drives to the lake. We see him gathering a bunch of heavy stones and there’s a beautiful shot of him sitting next to her body looking over the lake. He trudges into to the water with her in his arms and descends with her into the depths. The camera stays on the surface of the water for a moment and then cuts to Joe floating underwater with his mothers body in front of him while Johnny Greenwood’s score is going crazy. This is one of the most beautiful, rewarding shots I have ever seen in a film. His mothers body floats down into the darkness as Joe floats with his eyes closed. His mother is dead and he no longer has to take care of her. He can finally die and be at peace. Joe opens his eyes and sees Nina sinking into the darkness. It’s kind of a scary shot seeing her body sink deeper into darkness, but we can still see the outline of her in the water. He sees her and knows he has to live in order to save her so he removes all the rocks from his pockets and swims back up to the surface. We see his vision of Nina swimming to the surface as well. Finally we see Joe walking away from the lake, suit covered in water and the face that Joaquin is making is just remarkable. He seems almost angry that he has to go save this little girl instead of dying. I know it’s only April, but this might be my favorite sequence for the entire year. Thank you Lynne Ramsay.
Judith Roberts does a great job playing Joe’s old and fragile mother with a touch of senility. Ekaterina Samsonov doesn’t have much to do, but she does a great job at being Joe’s one reason to live. Johnny Greenwood is probably the second best performance in this movie behind Joaquin. This score is bonkers. I’m used to Greenwood and his eerie string music which he does again in this film, but he throws some weird techno beats in there and also some really jarring percussion. It’s a unique score that adds a lot of intensity and emotion to an already intense and emotional movie.
You Were Never Really Here will most likely make my top 10 for 2018 and the year isn’t even half way over yet. It’s a jarring, tense and brutal film that dives deep into the psyche of a troubled man. All these intense things happen, but in the end we actually get a happy ending… sort of.
For fans of: Taxi Driver, Good Time, We Need to Talk about Kevin