You Were Never Really Here (2017)

vt A Beautiful Day
UK, France, US / 90 minutes / color with some bw / Film4, BFI, Why Not, StudioCanal, Amazon, Lionsgate Dir & Scr: Lynne Ramsay Pr: Pascal Caucheteux, Rosa Attab, James Wilson, Rebecca O’Brien, Lynne Ramsay Story: You Were Never Really Here (2013; rev 2018) by Jonathan Ames Cine: Tom Townend Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Judith Roberts, Ekaterina Samsonov, John Doman, Alex Manette, Dante Pereira-Olson, Alessandro Nivola, Frank Pando, Scott Price, Jonathan Wilde, Ronan Summers, Kate Easton.

Lynne Ramsay’s hauntingly unforgettable We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011) was among the earliest movies to be covered on this site. You Were Never Really Here has that same indelible quality, that same feeling of inexorably advancing doom, yet it represents an entirely different approach to neonoirish material.

Joe (Phoenix) is a war veteran who now works for John McCleary (Doman) as a tracker-down of missing teenagers. A man who can manifest great violence, yet also great tenderness, he lives with his dear old mom (Roberts) in NYC fighting the PTSD-inspired ghosts of the carnage he’s seen and committed in (presumably) Iraq and also of his own childhood (where he’s played in flashback by Pereira-Olson), at the mercy of a brutal father (Wilde).

Joaquin Phoenix as Joe.

His latest commission is to extract the 13-year-old daughter of disgraced Senator Albert Votto (Manette) from the pedophile ring that’s enslaved her. Yet no sooner has he, in a display of great ruthlessness, rescued Nina (Samsonov) from her captors than she’s seized back again by a pair of vicious corrupt cops. Soon everyone around Joe is being savagely murdered and it become obvious to him that he’s tapped into a pedophile conspiracy that reaches high into the hierarchies of political power . . .

Ekaterina Samsonov as Nina.

The spine of the movie is a truly riveting performance by Joaquin Phoenix that brought him the Best Actor Award at 2017’s Cannes (where Ramsay was nominated for the Palme d’Or and shared the gong for Best Screenplay): brooding, unpredictable, seemingly slow-witted yet capable of instant decisions, the unstable Joe is—I hate to use the cliché—a force of nature, brushing aside like a storm-force wind, if storm-force winds could wield ball-peen hammers, anyone foolish enough to obstruct him.

But the fact that it’s hard for us to take our eyes off Phoenix shouldn’t blind us to the strength of the supporting performances by Judith Roberts as Mom and especially Ekaterina Samsonov as the moodily adolescent Nina Votto, innocent yet knowing, caught halfway between childhood and an adulthood that’s been prematurely forced upon her by her exploiters.

Judith Roberts as Mom.

The movie is very conscious of sound. Much of the action is backed by ambient chatter or by inane pop music (after a while I was just about ready to strangle the writers of “If I Knew You Were Comin’ I’d Have Baked a Cake”), providing not so much a setting for Joe as, it seems, a wall between him and the world. At times the ambient sound is deliberately muffled or even extinguished entirely, as if Joe isn’t entirely congruent with the Joe-shaped space that’s been reserved in reality for him: his relationship with his surroundings is conditional, fragile, temporary.

Tom Townend’s cinematography is exquisite, nowhere more so than during one of the turning points in the movie, when Joe, on the verge of drowning himself in the dark, still, cathedral-lit waters of a remote lake, is tempted back from the brink of suicide by a vision of Nina—a reminder that, while the taking of his own life is a matter of his personal choice, he has no moral right, in so doing, to allow the consequential loss of hers. (Here again the use of sound is exceptional.)

Alex Vanette as Senator Votto

The fact that the plot’s underpinning is derived from daft alt.right conspiracy theories like Pizzagate may make us doubt that what we’re seeing is what is actually happening, and this uncertainty is underscored toward the movie’s end, where events begin to toy with our perception of reality. Does Nina even exist? Are we witnessing Joe’s feverish daymare as he attempts to rationalize the mayhem around him?

The questions continue long after the final credits have rolled.

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6 thoughts on “You Were Never Really Here (2017)

  1. I enjoyed it when I saw it, but obviously on a much shallower level than you did. I don’t think I spent too much time analysing what I was seeing or thinking about it thereafter. I think I saw it on consecutive nights with Three Billboards and was more taken with that. The book by Jonathan Ames is very good and short as well!

    • I liked both movies about equally, I’d say . . . for what that’s worth. I have a note to read the Ames book, but I’m not sure when/if I’ll get to it.

      (Last night, just before falling asleep, I got stuck into that Rendell we were talking about a couple of weeks ago. Just so’s you know.)

  2. Yes, a very impressive film. I think Ramsay does a fantastic job in conveying to the viewer what it must feel like to be inside Joe’s head. A truly immersive cinematic experience.

    • I was surprised by how much I liked the movie. It was slightly disconcerting at the outset, because the packaging had led me to expect something a bit different (probably my own fault for just lazily assuming it was the same old same old), but as soon as I let the movie play on its own terms, so to speak, I was as you say completely immersed.

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