A film review by Craig J. Koban June 12, 2018

RANK:  #6


2018, R, 90 mins.

Joaquin Phoenix as Joe  /  Ekaterina Samsonov as Nina  /  Alessandro Nivola as Senator Williams  /  Alex Manette as Senator Votto  /  Judith Roberts as Joe's Mother  

Written and directed by Lynne Ramsay  /  Based on the book by Jonathan Ames

Very few vigilante thrillers are as unnervingly suspenseful, uncompromisingly bleak, and thoroughly disturbing as Lynne Ramsay's YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE, which is as brutally punishing to endure in its swift and refreshingly economical running time of 90-plus-minutes as any I've seen.  

I mean that last part as a sincere compliment.  

Based on the book of the same name by Jonathan Ames, Ramsay's film bares a superficial comparison to Martin Scorsese's TAXI DRIVER in terms of being about a former combat veteran that's mentally deranged and scours the streets of New York to save a young woman from the oppressive scum of society.  Beyond its premise of a sociopath avenger trying to do right in the world via very violent means, YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE still manages to stand proudly on its own two feet as a work of audacious style and chilling intensity that never takes the road most traveled approach with the underlining material.  Ramsay, thanklessly makes the familiar elements here feel  boldly revitalizing and new. 

That, and the film also represents one of the year's most dynamic and effortlessly fluid marriage of director and star, and Joaquin Phoenix - as only he knows how - delivers one of his most quietly eerie and grim performances of his career as the vigilante in question, whose agonized heart of darkness reverberates through every waking moment of the story.  Phoenix's raw and internalized performance seems like a pitch perfect match for Ramsay's own methodical exactitude as a cinematic stylist.  The lead performance and Ramsay's penchant and knack for crafting sequences of almost excruciating, stomach churning potency makes for an unendingly taut exercise in bravura audience manipulation.  The notion of a film that chronicles the thoughts and actions of a mentally unhealthy man and places us within his warped mindset may not be everyone's idea of a good time at the movies, but YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE makes no apologies for what it is.  As an examination of pain and suffering on multiple fronts, it's unforgettably compelling. 



I've heard from many that have complained about the lack of overall storytelling here, but Ramsay is not dealing with plot fundamentals in a traditional sense.  Her film is more of a startling mood piece and tone poem that's designed from the ground up to immerse us in the day-to-day psychological torment  that afflicts its damaged anti-hero.  If anything, it's the film's lean, mean and economical storytelling that works in its favor, not against it.  Phoenix plays Joe, an ex-military man and former FBI agent that suffers from clear cut signs of post-traumatic stress disorder.  This man is beyond damaged goods, which maybe helps him in his quest to be a hired gun that's tasked with rescuing sex trafficked young girls while dishing out comeuppance on the scumbag men that enslave them...in the most savage manner possible (his weapon of choice is a hammer).  

When he's not on the job he cares for his elderly mother in his childhood home, but via multiple flashbacks sprinkled in throughout the film it's hinted at that his past family life was punctuated by traumatizing violence.  One of the great aspects of Ramsay's approach here is that these flashbacks never meticulously spell out everything about Joe and his upbringing.  It respects audiences to pick up these sometimes vague flashback pieces and put them together to create some semblance of a whole.  Like fractured memories, Ramsay makes these scenes in the past feel impressionistically fleeting...almost as if Joe is both remembering and trying to forget them at the same time.  Joe is quickly given a new assignment from his underground boss/handler (John Doman) to locate and rescue 13-year-old Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov) from the vile clutches of rich pedophiles.  The girl's powerful Senator father (Alex Manette) pleads with Joe to treat her captors without mercy and as brutally as possible, which Joe dutifully and enthusiastically agrees to.  He does manage to infiltrate the heavily fortified upscale Manhattan apartment that enslaves Nina and other underage girls, but soon after Joe realizes that there are decidedly darker forces at work here than ever he was expecting. 

Ramsay's evocative sense of style and the feverish precision she brings to every scene in YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE makes the film have such a juggernaut-like pacing and sense of agonizing dread and unease about it.  The film has the standard accoutrements of lone nut vigilante fiction, but it's all done through a sometimes gorgeous lens worthy of an art house film.  This film is also not nearly as gory and violent as it hints at early on, seeing as Ramsay favors showing the build-up and after effects of Joe's chaotic one-man mass killing spree of degenerates as opposed to showing his acts in horrific detail (one masterful montage illustrates just that, as we see Joe slowly lumber from floor to floor in an apartment - via surveillance video - picking off his prey one at a time).  The brilliant sound design here works small scale miracles as well, especially for how Ramsay allows for the multitude of ambient noises from the Big Apple to drown the soundtrack, sometimes to suffocating effect.  Complimenting everything is Jonny Greenwood's haunting music score that not only blends in with the perverse sounds of the mean streets, but also creates a propulsive tempo that drums up the film's undulating sense of unease.  With his work here alongside his past scores on films like THERE WILL BE BLOOD and, most recently, PHANTOM THREAD Greenwood easily makes a claim for being worthy of inclusion of the cinematic elite for composers. 

It would be easy to label Joe as an unthinking and remorseless killing machine, but YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE paints this tormented soul in deeper and more intriguing layers.  In some scenes he's capable of incredible warmth and compassion, especially when caring for his sick mother or the children he liberates.  Contrastingly, in other scenes he's prone to unspeakable levels of violence while making very creative usage of his hammer.  Joe is both paradoxically tender and cruel, which may or may not have everything to do with his own grief-stricken childhood being on the receiving end of beatings from his father.  Yet, Ramsay never lets her film sit idle for too long to allow for us to relax, catch our breath, and reflect on the puzzling ambiguities and contradictions of this man.  YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE is fiendishly brilliant for how it eschews placating audience expectations for this genre.  The fact that Joe's odyssey never feels overtly predictable and preordained is to its esteemed credit.  The film's caffeinated vitality and unstoppable forward momentum keeps us glued to the screen in anticipation of what's to come next...even if we feel the need to watch through our fingertips in horror. 

Phoenix speaks so very little in the film, but his mostly silent performance works wonders.  He suggests in Joe a man haunted by his past and present, using body and facial language more than mere words, which makes his performance a ticking time bomb of unpredictable rage and hostility, so much so that you're never really sure when he'll explode.  It's one of the most unfiltered and raw pieces of acting I've seen in an awfully long time.  I knew Phoenix was an actor that has fully committed himself to his roles before, but he shows a whole other sort of method-to-his-madness approach in YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE that makes it such an intoxicating watch.  With a less sure-fire director and actor at the creative helm, this film could have become a trivial, one note revenge thriller that wallows in overused genre clichés, but the dynamic one-two punch of Ramsay and Phoenix elevate everything to concoct a courageously experimental and beguilingly original effort.  This is one of 2018's most relentlessly paced and stylishly impactful films, one that's both difficult to endure, yes, but impossible to forget as you exit the cinema. 

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