Mixing melancholy, warmth, and violence in ‘You Were Never Really Here’
Based on Jonathan Ames’s (read our interview with Ames here) novella of the same name, You Were Never Really Here follows an ex-Marine and CIA operative with a troubled past (Joaquin Phoenix) who works as a hired gun rescuing underage girls from sex trafficking operations. His newest assignment is to retrieve Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), the daughter of a prominent New York state senator. After the job goes horribly wrong, Joe is drawn into a conspiracy and is compelled more than ever to save Nina from the clutches of her captors.
Films like these are usually prone to violent clichés and melodrama, but Lynne Ramsay (We Need to Talk About Kevin) effectively avoids these pitfalls with a rare sense of humanity and non-linear storytelling. Through fragmented flashbacks we see glimpses into the horrors of our protagonist’s past. As the story progresses, we piece together what makes Joe think and behave the way that he does and we begin to feel the full extent of his suffering. Even the movie’s portrayal of violence, most of which is done off screen, further illustrates the film is about the man himself rather than the bodies he leaves in his wake.
Ramsay shows rather than tells, using startling imagery as well as heartwarming sequences with Joe’s mother and Nina to craft this character. This type of narrative technique carries over into the plot itself as its revelations are revealed through Joe’s quiet ponderings and the audio of newscasts. These plot devices will most definitely infuriate some moviegoers, but this is not a film for those expecting another cut-and-paste action thriller.
Aided by a jarring soundtrack by Jonny Greenwood (The Master) and a quiet and brooding performance by Phoenix (Walk the Line), You Were Never Really Here is Ramsay’s most compelling work to date. With only 90 minutes at her disposal, she crafts a dense tale with an emotional depth that outweighs its dark subject matter. It succeeds where others have not by finding beauty in the bleakest of places.