The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
You Were Never Really Here

Reviewed by Simon Ramshaw.

Director Lynne Ramsey
Length 89 minutes
Certificate 18
Rating ********--
Filmmaking: 4  Personal enjoyment: 4

Photo from the article A lot of films are about trauma. A few films are truly traumatic. Even fewer blend the two as successfully as Lynne Ramsay’s savage thriller, You Were Never Really Here. Cited by Screendaily.com to be a “a 21st century Taxi Driver”, Ramsay’s film does share some surface-level comparisons with Scorsese’s seminal work (both certainly depict a damaged American war veteran in a self-destructive spiral involving trying to save a young girl from a lifetime of exploitation), but Ramsay approaches the subject matter with a far more eerie, jagged edge than the Scorsese/Schrader dream team could ever hope to achieve.

While I found Ramsay’s previous film, We Need to Talk About Kevin, to be a work that constantly relied on repeated overstatement, You Were Never Really Here cuts right to the chase and barely gives you a chance to consider the socio-political implications of its central figure’s depressing existence. At a clean eighty-nine minutes (and four of them are credits), the film places you inside the unstable head of scruffy hitman Joe in every way it can, pulling you along on his journey towards almost-certain oblivion.

Joe has a number of pasts, but the film is only interested in these backstories in as much as they affect Joe himself; his history of violence often infects the tight narrative in elliptical flashbacks, but always finds a way to inform us of what they mean to him in the present moment. They are as much a distraction to Joe as they are to the audience in certain stretches, and at first, the sharp dips back in time can prove to be an irritation. Joaquin Phoenix is no stranger to portraying broken men with bizarre forms of self-expression, and he is the main factor by which the film lives and dies. He is the anchor that pulls the audience through the stretches of slight indulgence in backstory and otherwise sparse plotting, and he’s also the reason why you return to the film.

I have watched You Were Never Really Here four times, mainly to marvel again and again at Phoenix’s simmering portrait of pent-up rage, but also to decipher the subtleties of Jonny Greenwood’s eclectic score and Paul Davies’ superlative, atmospheric sound design. Greenwood leads us through a myriad of emotional states through his score that not only provides distinctive character themes, but vividly illustrates their emotional states in increasingly inventive ways. Meanwhile, Davies’ sound design always seems to find a fresh way of expressing Joe’s trauma in the past and present, and even provides a more effective jump scare than we’ve seen in any mainstream horror this decade.

Through this siren-like attraction to You Were Never Really Here, a new level of subtext emerges in its layered aesthetic qualities. A claustrophobic meat-and-potatoes thriller becomes a nuanced character piece with a very sincere crescendo, and proves to be one of both Phoenix’s and Ramsay’s most emotionally-rewarding works. Traumatic, yes, but as a film about the implications of trauma and the different positive and negative avenues it can take human beings down, it is a truly beautiful work.

This review was published on September 25, 2018.

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