As a slow burn psychological thriller, You Were Never Really Here delivers a brutal look into the life of a tormented hired gun named Joe (Joaquin Phoenix). Director Lynne Ramsay (We Need to Talk About Kevin) understands how to wound her audience up, but unravels the story with precision, even if ambiguity hinders the final product.
Haunted by events of his past, Joe makes money finding kidnapped girls. When he’s hired by a senator too afraid to go to the police to find his kidnapped daughter, Joe spends little time in accomplishing his goal. It’s only after he’s safely rescued Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov) from a brothel that he realizes there’s more going on, making the job personal. Phoenix is both intimidating and vulnerable in his portrayal of a suicidal and traumatized man who doesn’t seem to understand why he continues to fight just to wake up in the morning. While much of his dialogue comes through puffs of air and mumbling under his breath, it’s when his heightened emotions over the demons in his past or his moments of compassion where his characterization as more than the “hired gun” gives the film the weight it desperately needs.
Joe Bini’s editing cuts in fast shots of Joe’s past, only giving us enough detail to guess at the demons Joe is struggling with. Disturbing images bolstered by Johnny Greenwood’s incredible and spine-rattling score complete this almost eerie and dream-like picture of fighting for survival, even when the reason is no longer clear. It’s the score and the editing that refuses the audience any time to recover from the events on-screen. When you think nothing else could possibly happen, strobe-light like cuts and loud music are there to remind you it isn’t over yet. The use of sound in the film especially works well with imitating the thoughts in Joe’s head. Like the car horns and bustling traffic of everyday life, some things just can’t go away.
Watching an imposing antihero kill bad guys is nothing we haven’t seen before, but Ramsay gives us a fresh take on the familiar scenes. In one instance, Joe’s rescue of Nina is only seen through security cameras. The near silent sequence only adds to the unsettling moment when we see a young girl walk out of a room a naked man had just been hurled out of. In another, Joe stalks a house with just his hammer as a tool, and the only evidence we see of his violence are the bodies already on the ground. There’s blood and violence in You Were Never Really Here, and it is shocking, but never done for shock value.
Even if the film meanders a bit in the beginning, the wait is worth the final product. Tragedy occupies almost every moment of You Were Never Really Here, but it’s also proof there might just be something to hold onto by the end.