REVIEW: 'You Were Never Really Here' commands you to stay
This is director Lynne Ramsay’s fourth feature-length film but the first time I’ve ever experienced one of her works, and I can’t wait for more. You Were Never Really Here is based on a book by Jonathan Ames and received a seven-minute standing ovation at Cannes last year. As wary as I am about films that receive ovations at film festivals – more often than not those overzealous festival crowds are far too willing to clap – I certainly feel the praise for You Were Never Really Here is well-deserved. Its refusal to subject its audience to any kind of exposition is a breath of fresh air, and by using imagery and music Ramsay is able to craft a 90-minute, no-frills thriller that takes you through a roller coaster journey.
Joaquin Phoenix stars as Joe, a former combat veteran going through some severe PTSD who now works as a hired gun. What’s most interesting about Phoenix’s career is that he can physically change his appearance for his roles, which probably began in earnest with the disastrous I’m Not Here; he then went from wiry and stilted in The Master to bearded and glassy-eyed in Inherent Vice, and now in this film he’s got an overweight dad bod that feels just as heavy as his emotional trauma. After a mission to rescue the abducted daughter of a high-profile politician who has been sold into sexual slavery goes horribly wrong, Joe uncovers a bigger conspiracy that sends his entire life spiralling. (I told you the plot wasn’t its selling point).
The film is very visceral and unflinching in its violence, but less is more; the most brutal sequences happen off-screen or are skipped entirely, and Joe is often found coming to grips in the aftermath. The problem with a lot of crime films is that they often feel the need to explain multiple backstories to their viewers before going for the pay-off moment, rather than dropping them in to the middle of a crisis and saying, “here, figure it out.” There’s no big build-up here; you see things as Joe sees it, and a lot of it doesn’t make sense right away. Joe’s PTSD is as much a character of its own as Joe, and it’s often manifested through quick cuts to Joe suffocating himself with plastic bags or silently drowning in water. Joe’s PTSD is just as uncompromising as his desire to save the girl, and the big turning point comes when (minor spoiler alert) Joe goes through a rebirth through water, a common trope but executed beautifully by Ramsay.
Phoenix’s performance is excellent – I would stop short of calling it Oscar-worthy at the moment – and even though he took home Best Actor at Cannes, the true driving forces are the sounds of the film. Each shuffle of a foot on carpet or a shoe on gravel, each mumble of an intelligible line, each whisper and breath, is turned up high as to experience a temporary heightening of your senses, and no more is it apparent when Joe crushes his favourite green jelly bean in between his fingers, when you can hear the soft shell crack and feel its gummy, sticky texture in your mouth. That ability to feel the texture of the elements within the film – which is Moonlight’s crowning achievement, a film both Rob and I would comfortably place in the top 15 of the 21st century – is enthralling and riveting, and it’s amazing how the proper image and sound can help the audience fill in the blanks for feel and taste.
It’s worth mentioning that Jonny Greenwood, who has collaborated with both Phoenix and director Paul Thomas Anderson on multiple occasions in the past, has created a soundtrack with all sorts of dissonant sounds that goes in all sorts of directions and keeps the viewer on their feet, as if it’s unwilling to serve as an emotional guide. It’s a relatively straightforward 90-minute film, but like a three-hour flick, when the lights come on, you’re kind of stunned. There’s a lot of material to take in, and the experience lingers even as you walk out of the auditorium.
You Were Never Really Here gets three and a half stars out of four.