A traumatized veteran, unafraid of violence, tracks down missing girls for a living. When a job spins out of control, Joe’s nightmares overtake him as a conspiracy is uncovered leading to what may be his death trip or his awakening.
You Were Never Really Here is a much needed art-house take on the action/thriller genre. Of course it is more than an action or a thriller; it is also a modern retelling of the lone cowboy. Joaquin Phoenix plays a hero hiding behind the shadows and plays it to perfection. A character with so much compassion yet so much capacity for violence, it is hard to know what to think of him. The memories that haunt the film throughout are fragmented and raise more questions than answers. It is because of the way Ramsay tells the story that I am so fascinated by this film. ‘Hired gun’ Joe isn’t your typical antihero, clouded in grim psychological pains he’s mentally fragile and constantly suicidal, we follow his journey on a job gone wrong and are subjected to a barrage of assaults to the senses. Ramsay creates a harrowing experience from material that could play out as a conventional gritty revenge thriller.
Ramsay channels everything in her filmmaking powers to concoct an atmosphere that is grim and suffocating, successfully immersing us into a frame of mind that one would never want to find themselves in. There is such creativity and mastery to the editing, sound design, and musical score here that far exceeds that of the typical, shallow “style” piece one would usually find in a more basic thriller, instead utilizing these elements to create a picture that is as fragmented, discordant, and harshly-resounding as the mind of its protagonist. This is a unique brand of subjective filmmaking, Ramsay often employing reliable tricks like the POV shot or the visual representation of the psyche to staggering results, but never at the cost of her innovative artistic voice. There’s an argument to be made that despite this arguably being Ramsay’s bleakest film, it also might be her most cathartic. It’s not a pleasant watch, but once you step out of You Were Never Really Here’s world, there’s a sense of having been repeatedly bludgeoned over the head and living to tell the tale, and you feel relieved to have escaped such a hellhole. Whether Joe and Nina will ever feel the same way is another question.
The sound is mixed to balance and unbalance audio in a way I’ve never heard before, blurring the line between internal torment and external noise pollution to discomforting, realistic results, while the editing not only fractures the past but does the same to the present, letting the violence play out off-screen as if a tragically normalized aspect of Joe’s life, a trivial thing that can be glossed over. Greenwood’s score is equal parts invigorating and hellish nightmare fuel, using bouncy synthesizers and haunting strings to always enhance the oppressive mood underlying the entire odyssey of terror.
Nothing in the plot is fed too directly to the audience, making some details hard to get on first viewing, but it’s all about leaving room to feelings, emotions and interpretation. Joaquin Phoenix as always is astonishing and the depth of his character is fascinating. The mise en scène is particularly impressive, very interesting choices in terms of shots and compositions, revealing Lynne Ramsey’s particularly original voice and attention to details
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