You Were Never Really Here is a dark film, but not in the way you would think. Although the violence is of an extreme nature, the film gets its dark atmosphere from the inklings in its main protagonist’s psyche. A slow burn that inevitably becomes a downward spiral into those darkest parts of your own mind.
You Were Never Really Here follows Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) a war veteran who finds missing girls for a living. Rich and powerful fathers who have lost their daughters come to Joe and his handler (John Doman) to have them find their daughters and punish those who took them. When the daughter of a senator goes missing, Joe is asked to find her and hurt those that took her. The job goes smoothly at first but takes a sudden turn, spiraling into chaos and the girl is taken away from him. Now Joe must find her again while his world and his mental state begin to unravel.
Let’s talk about the marketing for You Were Never Really Here before diving into the film itself. A couple trailers were released for this film after its run at the 70th Cannes Film Festival, prior to its theatrical release. Both trailers gave the film a sort of dark, gritty thriller with some psychological horror thrown in. Both trailers also depicted the story focusing very much on the hunt for this girl and the violence that would ensue from Joe’s line of work. This is not that film.
If you were someone who went into this film knowing nothing, it would have been a better experience. This difference from the marketing to the actual film does hurt the pacing. The first half of the film is a slow trudge through the day-to-day life of a man with a dark choice of career. There is isolation is his habits and it slows the momentum of the film to a crawl. The pacing does pick up for the latter half though, but for that first half I wondered if I was lied to. Having seen the trailers led me into thinking of You Were Never Really Here to be something it’s not. Luckily, the film does something that is much more than most dark thrillers are.
“You Were Never Really Here is a film exploring a man [who] feels the punches life inflicts on him.”
Directed by Lynne Ramsay (We Need to Talk About Kevin), explores the mind of someone whose life has been shaped by violence and is not the better for it. Joe is doing good work to find and save these young girls from a life of depravity and sexual abuse but Joe himself is not a good person for how he does his work. Throughout the film we see Joe as this somber character but something is off about him. Little ticks that hint at this fascination with violence eventually turn into more and more extreme acts.
What makes this different from any sort of psychotic character is that Joe isn’t numb to this violence, and it takes a toll. The focus is not on the hunt for a senator’s daughter in the dark underworld of sex trafficking. This only acts as the framing device for Joe‘s own story. You Were Never Really Here is a film exploring a man living in violence and how that cuts deep. Whether it is through flashbacks of his childhood or military service, or the current situation that he finds himself, Joe is our action hero that feels the punches life inflicts on him.
The camera keeps you wondering about Joe. Close ups force you to stare at scars on his body, or the look in his eyes. While he navigates the house where he cares for his elderly mother, you feel the claustrophobic space of the halls or the closets where he goes on more than one occasion. In public the camera is distant, showing his isolation, even in a crowded space. The cinematography may be great in this factor; but it does hurt one aspect: the violence. The camera is tethered to Joe for almost the entirety of the film. While this does aid the look into this dark mind, it takes away from the acts that he does. We only see the aftermath of those that Joe hurts either directly or indirectly.
You Were Never Really Here is a unique experience in sound design as well. The film works within moments of silence and in jarring sound. The first half of the film utilizes a lot of silence with ambient sounds of the cityscape (with the occasional 80’s synth) to tell Joe’s story. The second half plays more into Joe‘s crumbling psyche. The silence is broken up at some points with jarring outbursts of sound or led along by somber, whispered speech in the background. These choices take you into Joe’s chaotic, depressive mind.
“You Were Never Really Here is not a dark tale of a man using violence to do good but rather showing how a life surrounded by violence takes a toll.”
You Were Never Really Here is not a dark tale of a man using violence to do good but rather showing how a life surrounded by violence takes a toll. Joaquin Phoenix’s performance carries the film through its 90-minute run time. The initial marketing for the film does showcase a different story that becomes more of a framing device to the actual story at hand. This might either hurt your viewing or pleasantly surprise you. Either way, Lynne Ramsay introduces you to someone who you would not want to be and by the credits you too feel the weight he carries.
You Were Never Really Here is the newest film from Lynne Ramsay and starring Joaquin Phoenix. After winning Best Screenplay and Best Actor at the 70th Cannes Film Festival, the film was released in select theaters April 6, 2018 with a worldwide release April 20, 2018.