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You Were Never Really Here - DVD Review

You Were Never Really Here

Review by Rob Carnevale

IndieLondon Rating: 4 out of 5

THERE are some films that are easier to admire than to like. Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here is one of those.

Based on the book of the same name by Jonathan Ames, the film tackles with a difficult subject in suitably intense fashion and yet seldom does the things you may be expecting from it.

The story revolves around Joe (played by Joaquin Phoenix), a former soldier and law enforcement officer who lives with his elderly mother in the house where he spent his traumatised childhood.

Joe now works as an enforcer specialising in the recovery of teens who go missing, especially those that end up being used for under-age sex by rich businessmen. His latest case, involving the daughter of a young politician, uncovers a wider conspiracy involving political heavyweights that places the lives of Joe and those he knows in the utmost danger.

So far, so familiar. But anyone expecting the type of gung-ho action thriller in the style of Taken or Man on Fire had best think again. Ramsey doesn’t go for high energy set pieces, or even conventional structure. She is, after all, the same filmmaker behind the likes of Morvern Callar and We Need To Talk About Kevin.

Rather, You Were Never Really Here is more of a psychological thriller played out in the mind of its central protagonist. Hence, comparisons with films such as Taxi Driver.

Ramsay makes the audiences put in the work to fully understand the film’s permutations; or rather, it’s leading man’s psychology. His back-story, in particular, is relayed in fleeting flashbacks that only really offer snapshots [if that] of Joe’s former life. But they leave you in no doubt as to the trauma they have caused; and the torment they still create.

Phoenix, for his part, is terrific at bringing those to life. Heavy set and menacing, he’s also capable of displaying compassion and confusion; sorrow and rage; despair and hope. It’s a complex role, bereft of much dialogue, that could have easily gone wrong.

And it’s Phoenix, more than Ramsay even, that makes You Were Never Really Here quite so compelling. For while Ramsay’s direction lends the film its distinct feel, it’s also its Achilles heel at times. The fragmented nature of its storytelling, its sparse dialogue, its refusal to adhere to conventional revenge structures all make for interesting viewing, but they can become frustrating. And the film certainly won’t be to everyone’s tastes.

Where Ramsay does get extra credit is how she depicts the violence. The film in no way feels exploitative; either in a sexual sense or a violent one. There are violent, heinous acts being committed throughout – and, indeed, there are times when Joe almost seems to be drowning in it.

But most of the violence takes place off-screen. As does the sex. We witness it as Joe witnesses it. We see the marks it leaves on him. We understand the psychological toll.

Similarly, we feel Joe’s mounting sense of desperation. The film is incredibly tense, in spite of what some may call a leisurely pace. But that only makes the experience more notable.

Hence, while by no means comfortable viewing, You Were Never Really Here is a striking, even occasionally moving, piece of filmmaking. It’s redemptive qualities eventually outweigh the suffocating sense of grimness surrounding it.

And perhaps for those very reasons, it will stay with you for some time afterwards.

Certificate: 15
Running time: 89mins
UK Blu-ray & DVD Release: July 2, 2018