'You Were Never Really Here' Film Review -An Uncompromising Exploration Of A Broken Man Looking To Feel Again
By Jack Dignan
Lynne Ramsey needs to make more movies. The We Need To Talk About Kevin and Ratcatcher director has been notably absent from the big screen as of late, and her cinematic presence is sorely missed. To put it bluntly, her latest outing, You Were Never Really Here, fucking rules. It’s a terrifying, provocative and violent unraveling of a lost, lonely man in search of something that’ll finally make him feel again, and it’s one of the best films of the year.
It’s been a long road getting to this film’s release. After its initial Cannes premiere back in May 2017, and appearances in subsequent film festivals all throughout the globe, including the Sydney Film Festival, which is where I caught this back in June, it’s finally hitting Australian shores next week. Yet, after a year of non-stop hype and praise, the bold and daring thriller still managed to exceed all expectations. It’s the piercing visual style of We Need To Talk About Kevin implemented into an uncompromisingly brutal narrative, and it works oh so very well.
Ramsey’s screenplay, adapted from the novella by Jonathan Ames, is a tight, taut exploration into the physiological warfare playing out inside the head of Joe (Joaquin Phoenix, in one of his best roles to date). He’s a traumatised veteran, whose purpose in life was lost after the war, unafraid of violence and willing to use any means necessary to track down and save little girls. Joe’s newest assignment is that of a child prostitute, played by Ekaterina Samsonov, but the further he digs into her current situation, the more confronting his life becomes. Parallels to Taxi Driver are inescapable, but these are two very different movies, both brilliant in unique ways.
The film plays out as a violent unraveling of Joe’s deluded reality. It’s a film almost entirely devoid of exposition, using some of the sharpest editing in recent memory, as well as a series of chilling close ups, to create a vivid sensation of who this character is. Ramsey’s direction is very restraint, yet there’s a strong feeling of underlying subtext in every shot, every line, and every minuscule movement of Phoenix’s performance. Most of the violence plays out off screen, but you feel the impact of every blow he makes.
There’s an undeniable fierceness to Joe and his internalization of the world around him, yet the film juxtaposes his story with a calm, peaceful approach. It’s quiet, slow and meditative, but when he’s let go, it’s best you don’t get in his way. Over the course of the film, he reveals himself to be a strong, powerful character masking his broken reality and clunky state of mind. Phoenix gives it his absolute all, and while it probably won’t earn him too many accolades this awards season, he certainly deserves some.
It’s almost unbelievable how simple this movie is. It moves at such a brisk pace, and yet, it’s complete. I got more out of this 89 minute than I have in entire eight season television shows. This isn’t necessarily a movie about the story, but instead, the craft and the characters take us on a depraved journey through an insidious part of life that pounds its way into the core of your very being. Ramsey slowly unravels layer after layer, hurtling us towards a final, unforgivable act of violence. The past sticks with us. And it sucks. But this film makes you feel everything.
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