You Were Never Really Here: Reviewed
By Claire Pak
A word of warning: the film contains sexual violence (though largely implied), graphic violence, and suicide ideation. I don’t talk about these things much in the review, but it’s a good thing to note before heading in.
Lynne Ramsay’s last work, the psychological thriller We Need To Talk About Kevin starring Tilda Swinton and and Ezra Miller, was released in 2011. After a long seven-year wait the Scottish director’s newest feature film, You Were Never Really Here, packs its 89-minute runtime with the emotional intensity and character exploration that most two-hour films would struggle to match.
The synopsis for Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really There hits several genre beats: the idea of an older man capable of committing extremely violent acts while protecting a young(er) girl is one that pops up over and over again, from Taken to Children of Men to video games like The Last of Us. But the film often cuts away before the violence is dealt. We see a hammer raised to bash in somebody’s head, then an empty hallway somewhere else in the building. We see limp bodies, hear ominous footsteps, watch characters collapse into themselves in the wake of trauma, but violence itself is largely only suggested through slumped bodies and blood, proof of violence inflicted even as the act of violence remains unwitnessed. The result is a violent movie where violence is not action, but character, where despite the increasingly complicated plot, the emotional realities of the characters remain simple but devastating, conveyed through sweat across a forehead or the stretching of muscles or the sound of breathing.
Ramsay has often been praised for her sense of visual poetry, and the film benefits greatly from shots that look gorgeous but also shoulder a great deal of narrative work. Each shot of Joe’s body (and there certainly are a lot, though there isn’t full-frontal nudity) draw attention to his myriad scars, to his slumped posture, to the way one shoulder is visibly lower than the other, as if it had been dislocated at some point in time. Though his backstory is ultimately left up in the air for the viewer to assemble, Joe’s scars and his brief, imagery-laden flashbacks establish an understanding of Joe’s mental state without saying anything out loud. One scene in particular (no spoilers, I promise) near the beginning of the third act communicates Joe’s motivation and emotional journey through nothing but dreamlike imagery and shots of floating strands of hair. The economical visual storytelling is helped by Joaquin Phoenix’s performance and his incredible attention to detail with his body (seriously, how does he do that with his shoulder?). Even as he manhandles a target or raises his hammer to bash in somebody’s head, he speaks in a soft, somewhat high-pitched voice, as he does when conversing with his sweet elderly mother at home, getting across a strange mix of brutality and vulnerability all at once. The way he moves through the city and the composition of each shot both work to quietly suggest violence done in places no one wants to talk about, the feeling of walking through a city as energetic as New York and idly wondering if anybody would notice if you suddenly disappeared.
You Were Never Really There is a bit of a bleak movie, if you couldn’t tell. But it’s not a joyless film, or even a film that ascribes to realism. The film utilizes an almost absurd dark humor, especially in the first half as Joe plays around with his knife. Psycho references are abundant, sometimes overtly in dialogue and sometimes in the form of a taxidermy bird hanging out on a wall. Many scenes lean into surreality, often providing some of the most memorable moments in the film. But none of these elements undermine the emotional weight of trauma that the film imbues every scene with. The result is a film that subverts genre beats in favor of meditation on character and our own relationships to violence. People can dislike the fragmented narrative, criticize Joe’s seemingly never-ending conga line of misery, tilt their head at odd plot points here and there. But narrative cohesion is simply not a concern of the film (though I personally think that criticisms of a “convoluted” plot are pretty overblown and, well, wrong). It embraces a tone and an aesthetic that evokes a dream bordering on nightmare, but only just: slow and surreal, it ebbs and flows with the emotional states of the characters, transforming the violence of Joe’s world into brutal poetry.