April 3, 2018 You Were Never Really Here (Movie Review)
Right as the credits for You Were Never Really Here start rolling across the screen, there is a cacophony of noise. It is actually even before the credits appear. It is when the screen is still black. This noise assault only hints at what is to come.
Writer/Director Lynne Ramsay is no stranger to stark and brutal examinations of the havoc trauma wages on human beings. She has set an impressive tone with her 2002 film Morvern Callar and 2011’s We Need to Talk About Kevin. Set for release in select theaters on Friday, April 6, 2018 through Amazon Studios, You Were Never Really Here is her latest consideration of the human condition. That in mind, it may be her most stripped down effort yet… but is that a good thing?
Based on the book by Jonathan Ames, the film tells the tale of war veteran Joe (Joaquin Phoenix: Gladiator 2000, Walk the Line 2005) as he spends his life tracking down missing girls. Haunted by memories of the war and his line of work, Joe lives with his mother who suffers from a degenerative condition (Judith Roberts: Eraserhead 1977, Orange is the New Black series). This is a man whose entire life is defined by inescapable pain.
Joe’s task is simple. He must find Nina Votto (Ekaterina Samsonov: The Ticket 2016, Wonderstruck 2017), the daughter of a senator. Nina is presumed kidnapped and forced into child prostitution. Things complicate and Joe finds himself involved in a larger conspiracy.
You Were Never Really Here is a sleek watch at only 95 minutes. Joe and his mother live in a New York that is rendered as oppressive and suffocating. The cinematography of Thomas Townend (The Life and Times of Vivienne Vyle series Attack the Block 2011) and score by Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead both are impressive in conveying just how trapped Joe feels wherever he goes. Just as the audience cannot escape the noise from even before the credits, Joe cannot escape his memories and nightmares.
Joe’s work is brutal in scope and execution. It is, however, portrayed tastefully. Violence is ever present. While much of it happens off screen, the sheer ferocity of it comes across every time. In this sense, You Were Never Really Here is a success. It accurately portrays the ugly, violent world that the tortured Joe must contend with.
The problem the film runs into is that it can come off as a little too simplistic. Ramsay portrays the story very matter-of-factly and with little stylization. As a result, it is a challenge to empathize completely with Joe despite his situation. Perhaps that is part of what Ramsay was going for. It is not exactly clear.
Joaquin Phoenix is impressively physical in the role of Joe. His scarred body reflects the violence of his world and his quiet demeanor suggests a permanent, and unfortunate, detachment. There is also the trouble of his relationship with his mother. Judith Roberts loses herself in her own world as Joe’s fragile mother. She decays before her son’s eyes. There is tenderness to their time together, despite Joe’s obvious frustration. In arguably a missed opportunity, this family dynamic goes unexplored.
Mother and son are the only people who feel very real in the story. Once Joe becomes shackled to the conspiratorial underworld of violence and sexual depravity, he becomes less of a human being and more of an action hero, albeit one who’s quieter and more wracked with problems. Of course there is no moral ambiguity regarding child prostitution. A wrong is a wrong, to say the least here. Joe is so pain-ridden that he repeatedly attempts suicide. His war experiences end up feeling almost clichéd in the face of his opportunity to stand against an objective and therefore one-dimensional evil for some sense of redemption.
It is disappointing then that such a well realized film could feel as empty as You Were Never Really Here does. It is eager to delve into dark territory. Lynne Ramsay has proven herself fearless for this kind of meditation, but any moments of real insight are unfortunately few and far between here. For this, CrypticRock gives You Were Never Really Here 2.5 out of 5 stars.