• Ben Keightley

You Were Never Really Here (2018) - Lynne Ramsay - Film Review

Updated: Jun 17, 2019

It’s hard to imagine You Were Never Really Here lasting longer than its sparse 90 minutes, so intent is Lynne Ramsey on immersing us in the mind of Joaquin Phoenix’ protagonist. Anything longer may have proven unbearable, such is the vice like grip the film has on you. A man haunted and tortured so much that not even the extreme acts of violence he enacts against evil men appears to deliver any catharsis. In the hands of a lesser director the film could easily have felt like a bog-standard revenge thriller.

So familiar are the films key plot points; a military veteran with a dark past is now an enforcer, finding and saving kidnapped or lost children from the evils of the world. He stumbles into a job which is much bigger than he anticipated, resulting in the destruction of his small, guarded and quietly assembled life that sends him on a savage and brutal journey of revenge.

In Ramsey’s hands though, the film becomes something truly cinematic, artistic to the point of abstraction. She strips all sense of plot and story from the film, leaving us with just the films anti-hero Joe; arguably Phoenix’s greatest performance. A character he, and therefore the audience, get lost in. Ramsey gives us just enough glimpses of Joe’s past to help us piece together the reasons for his jaded, unhinged and broken psyche.

Joe, a tortured, relentless avenger

The past traumas invading his mind at unexpected and uncontrollable times; be it a group of Asian tourists asking him to take a picture, or just waiting on the platform for a train. Through these intrusions we are willingly or not thrown into Joe’s mindset. And it’s an uncomfortable and exhausting place to be. So much so in fact, that when violence does burst onto the screen, it often, unexpectedly, comes as a relief. An outburst of action – something distracting us from the visual and aural onslaught this film delivers.

But the film is never gratuitous – a trait all too common in revenge thrillers. Yes, there is violence, the hammer being Joe’s weapon of choice, but Ramsey never allows the film, or the audience to indulge. Even though the people on the receiving end of Joe’s attacks may well deserve such retribution. Instead, through masterful direction, sound design and editing, Ramsey implies violence, and more shockingly, often humanises the victims. A devastatingly heart-breaking scene sees Joe see out a dying man’s last moments by lying beside him, holding his hand and singing together to a song playing on the radio.

Lynne Ramsay, Thomas Townend & Joaquin Phoenix on set

As the film hurtles towards its climax, it’s unclear how much of the Joe’s actions, and his attempts to save a girl will redeem him. Can he ever escape his past? Can saving this girl really save her? Is he saving her in an attempt to feel something, or is it to avoid her facing a similar fate? Where so often, revenge thrillers focus on action and plot, You Were Never Really Here is interested in character. Ramsey never attempts to explain the world Joe unwittingly finds himself in. He’s certainly not interested in interrogating people, other than in his search for the girl to understand the who’s, why’s, how’s our what’s. His questioning is purely functional.

As Joe moves through the city like a ghost, never really part of the world, but a vital component of it, life continues oblivious to evils he is driven to destroy. The point is hammered home in the final scene, as a violent outburst goes unnoticed in a diner. The patrons continuing their conversations, sipping their coffee and eating the breakfasts. Joe indeed was never really there.



Ramsay's latest is a tour de force of direction, acting, cinematography, sound design and script that creates an immersive experience that is as challenging to endure as it is rewarding. A masterpiece.

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