By Tony Artiga
I wish I had a beautiful, eloquent way to introduce this review, I really do. But You Were Never Really Here floored me with such blunt force that it almost seems inappropriate to do so. This film is a masterclass in economic storytelling and a clinic in atmosphere.
Joaquin Phoenix plays Joe, a former FBI Agent and combat veteran who cares for his mother and shares a trauma with her from his abusive childhood at the hands of his father. He has taken up a job as a hired gun, and receives an assignment to rescue the kidnapped daughter of a prominent senator. He takes the job unaware of the tangled web that he has gotten himself into.
You may have already heard this story, I’m sure. Or you may think you have.
The plot is fairly straightforward and simplistic. Ramsay relishes in this by mining the material to put emphasis on the state of mind of the protagonist. What does this type of life do to someone?
This film echoes John Carpenter in the best possible way. Director Lynne Ramsay is a master storyteller. She uses the music, the editing and cinematography beautifully to inform the atmosphere and give a microscopic look at Joe’s state of mind. Too often, films of this nature lionize the traumatized hitman. It seems cool to be the hired gun with one last job. Not so here. This film puts you inside his head, and more important his heart. The brilliance of the film is not in it’s concept but in it’s execution. Characters feel alive in a way that is often absent in this genre. And there are so many moments that are visceral and haunting. It’s an sobering analysis of the humanity of brutal people.
Joaquin Phoenix works his way through this character’s journey in You Were Never Really Here with the quiet precision of an archer. You feel this character’s pain, in trial or in triumph, with every choice, every movement. The rest of the cast in their own way contribute to Joe’s singleminded nature, take a step back to tell his story. The sole exception is Ekterina Samsonov as Nina, the daughter of a beleaguered senator who is need of rescue. Her highlights come toward the end of the film, so I won’t say too much. Needless to say the resolution of her story will haunt you well after you leave the cinema.
We’re only 3 months into 2018 but this a strong contender for one of my top picks of the year.