Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here doesn’t concern itself with much plot. It doesn’t concern itself with much of anything in regards to narrative, as a matter of fact.
What it does concern itself with is Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), a hired hitman who is tasked with recovering the kidnapped daughter (Ekaterina Samsonov) of a New York Senator (Alex Manette). Mainly, it is concerned with Joe’s means of coping with his present job and his rocky past.
We first see Joe through a mask of plastic. The material slowly crinkles inward and then
bubbles out as Joe breathes—or, more accurately, asphyxiates. But Joe is not being attacked. Merely, he is suffocating himself. Later, this action will be repeated, along with other suicidal games.
The film functions as a character study of Joe. Joe’s suicidal preoccupations, at least in terms of the imagery that it produces, are intriguing. There is something transfixing to just how casually he considers his mortality. It is as if life to him is not something to safeguard, but rather something worth gambling away.
As intriguing as this is, the film doesn’t actually present us with a conversation about Joe’s dark desires. Joe, as a character, has very little to say. Quite literally, as he meanders through scenes either entirely mute or mumbling dialogue.
While a more intricately-plotted film wouldn’t require access into the protagonist’s mind, Joe’s closed-off demeanor only makes the lack of plot in You Were Never Really Here stand out more. Joe’s emotional distance from his own situation leaves us as an audience wondering why it is important that we follow his story. Even in the end, when his emotional arc is resolved via an open-ended anti-climax, we are left to question what exactly we are meant to extrapolate from his adventure.
This said, Phoenix provides a phenomenal performance. With so little said, he does a lot of physical work to provide his character’s repressed, complex emotional framework.
Ramsay gives the film life through an intricate use of style, so much so that it functions more effectively as a sensory experience than a narrative film.
From the onset, an unnerving mood is created through choices in editing and soundtrack. Jonny Greenwood delivers an impressive score, which Ramsay integrates very well. There will be long stretches of quiet stillness which are interrupted by the dissonant noise of the score and/or frantic snippets of Joe’s past that threaten to dismantle his sanity.
It’s all very stylish, and those who do not require much more than a spectacular style in their cinema will likely fall in love with the audio-visual trappings of this film. But the plot is so thin, and the character is too isolating, which ultimately makes the film less powerful.
You Were Never Really Here: B
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)