You Were Never Really Here movie review: Joaquin Phoenix is chillingly good in Lynne Ramsay’s dark thriller

Mihir Fadnavis

Jun 02, 2018 14:25:27 IST


If you’re in the mood for a wallow in a dark, distressing and violent cloud of grimness and isolation, Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here is just the perfect choice of film you should be watching on the big screen this weekend. It’s got all the ingredients to suck out all the happiness from your life but it’s so well put together and performed by Joaquin Phoenix in the lead role, it’s impossible to look away from.

There’s no denying the Travis Bickle hangover as Phoenix plays Joe, an ex-FBI agent suffering from PTSD and is now an assassin for hire with existential issues. He specialises in rescuing children who have been imprisoned and abused, and his new assignment takes him on another brutal journey where he needs to navigate through both slimy gangsters and the skeletons in his own closet.

Joaquin Phoenix and Ekaterina Samsonov in a still from You Were Never Really Here

Joaquin Phoenix and Ekaterina Samsonov in a still from You Were Never Really Here

You wouldn’t be faulted for assuming the story feels cliché – we have indeed seen this sort of a character before many times. The sympathetic guy with the tragic past who curdles blood over ice, troubled by an emotional crisis every time he has to make a decision that walks the tightrope of the moral code. But this is a Lynne Ramsay film, and the filmmaker finds new visual ways to execute information we have already gathered in other movies. In simpler terms, and at the risk of an unfairly reductive description, You Were Never Really Here is a film that chooses style over substance, and every hackneyed story beat is executed with cinematic audio visual form that we aren’t accustomed to, rendering a feeling of tension and even discomfort.

Cinematic discomfort is what Lynne specializes in – it’s the stylistic choice she employs in all her films from Ratcatcher to Morvern Callar to We Need to talk about Kevin. Like in her previous work, this film’s biggest theme is about wounds that were never given the chance to heal, and the lengths that one goes to to find solace in sequestration. She doesn’t make films for you to have a good time at the movies; she makes films to make you as uncomfortable as possible with very off putting visuals.

The interesting thing is Joe’s backstory is hardly explored – the information is only given in brief flashes as opposed to a spoon-fed flashback narrative to explain his persona. We know just enough about Joe to stay with the character and Phoenix’s incredible screen presence — dripping with dampness in sweaty close ups — is powerful enough to cause the requisite cinematic discomfort Ramsay drills into our heads. Adding to the discomfort is the portentous score by Jonny Greenwood, which complements the disturbed central character and Thomas Townend’s bleak cinematography. The technical detailing is quite the masterclass in squeezing out emotion from audiences without persistent audio-visual loudness but at precisely placed points with subtleties that become less minimal as the messed up sequence unfolds, grows and evolves. The style is reminiscent of the filmmaking of Jeremy Saulnier, who also finds a certain new texture in the underbelly of American societies grappling with negligence.

The film makes no apologies about being a very rough watch and offering no real answers to the ignominy of the postmodern human condition. But it is a journey you must take on the biggest screen possible — preferably alone — to deal with emotions that you probably don’t want others to see.

Updated Date: Jun 02, 2018 14:25:27 IST