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Review: You Were Never Really Here

April 13, 2018

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Winning awards for Best Actor and Best Screenplay at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, You Were Never Really Here follows Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), a shell-shocked war veteran who works as a hired gun, tracking down and rescuing underage girls who have been taken for sex trafficking, and killing the men responsible.

When he is hired by New York Senator Albert Votto (Alex Manatte) to find his adolescent daughter Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), who disappeared from home, Joe gets sucked even deeper into both the seedy criminal underworld and his own tortured psyche.

The first feature directed by Lynne Ramsay since the disturbing study of psychopathy that was We Need to Talk About Kevin in 2011, You Were Never Really Here is another peak into the mind of a damaged character.  Where as that film was about a mother coming to terms with her son’s capacity for evil and his ability to commit senseless acts of violence, this one offers a moody portrait of a man who is haunted by the pure evil he has seen in the world, and views violence as the only way to rescue the innocent from people who seek to do them harm.

While I personally found You Were Never Really Here to be a bit too vague and impressionistic at times, it’s less than 90 minutes and I think it would have benefitted from fleshing out more of its story, this is still an interesting and stylistic exercise in show not tell filmmaking.  The film plays with a brooding intensity that keeps us on edge, and there are a handful of extremely well crafted sequences, including a raid on an illegal brothel that is brilliantly shown through security camera footage.  Joaquin Phoenix commits himself fully to the role of Joe, a man of very few words who is clearly haunted by his past and suffers from PTSD, which is disorientingly portrayed through fragmented flashbacks that are shown throughout the film.

Although there are echoes of Taxi Driver in the story of vigilante justice, and the film at times recalls the arthouse thrills of Drive, You Were Never Really Here is often entirely its own thing.  There is a strange, dreamlike quality to the film that allows it to get under your skin, and while I do think there are some problems with the minimalistic approach to how the story is told, parts of it are also really hard to shake afterwards.  Jonny Greenwood’s pulsating musical contributions are the standout element of the film, a work heavy on thumping synth beats and dissonant strings that stands in direct contrast to his more gentle piano score for Phantom Thread, but is no less mesmerizing.

You Were Never Really Here is now playing in limited release at Cineplex Cinemas Varsity in Toronto.

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