"You Were Never Really Here" (2018) Review
What happens when a film decides to lock you into the pain and perspective of one character for a full ninety-minutes?
That's the first question you'll want to roll around in your head before watching You Were Never Really Here, a film that definitely falls more into the realm of experimental filmmaking than traditional filmmaking. The borderline experimental approach is something that's impossible to dodge when talking about You Were Never Really Here, a film that eschews several "rules" of the genre its decided to set up shop inside of.
This review is a first for me. I've put up reviews for movies where I'd seen the piece in question multiple times, but those films were never actively in theaters at the time of writing but were retrospective pieces. For this review, I opted to watch You Were Never Really Here twice in the span of a few days. I literally couldn't come to a conclusion on how I felt about the film. That was ignoring an obvious fact that I somehow didn't appreciate the magnitude of until about halfway through my second viewing, but I'm getting ahead of myself.
This film literally set me on a journey that I've never felt super compelled to complete. It's not that I don't re-watch movies to re-evaluate them, but that I literally didn't understand my own feelings about You Were Never Really Here, if I liked it, if I hated it, and so on. The only thing I was sure of was that it was an arthouse approach to a well-worn story and that I was going to need more time and thought to pick it apart accordingly.
The first thing I want to get out of the way with You Were Never Really Here is that it's one of the most technically accomplished films I've watched in a long time. For a film that is painfully confined to reality and only creates subjective moments through editing, it is gorgeously shot. It's the kind of cinematography that doesn't seem as impressive because of its confined scale, but it's stunning how well camera moves are planned out, how well lighting is placed, and how beautifully balanced each shot is.
The sound design is also remarkable, which seems to elevate the sounds of traffic, footsteps, and other ambient sound to disturbing volumes. It's a realistic approach to sound design that slides stylistic choices inside of itself with skin-crawling results. Traffic sounds less like vehicles and more like monsters prowling through a literal concrete jungle. Our lead characters' footsteps are a constant reminder of how he's a heavy walking pile of flesh and bone. Just as important to the sound design is the original music score composed by Jonny Greenwood (yes, Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead) which is incredible. A weird mixture of synth, guitar, dissonant piano, strings, and more, it's a cacophony of madness that compliments the film well.
The story of the film is fairly simple, but how the film presents it is where it becomes such an odd piece of work. The main character, Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), is an ex-military man who now rescues girls from human trafficking. He does it completely off the books (though some flashbacks suggest he may have done it officially at one point) and brutally murders captors with a hammer. His most recent assignment involves rescuing a senator's daughter, Nina (Ekaternina Samsonov), and when it goes south out of seemingly nowhere, Joe sets out to finish what might end up being his final job.
It's not going to be his final job because of how dangerous it is, but because Joe is a husk of who he was, deeply damaged by trauma. He is teetering on the brink of suicide throughout the entire movie, almost literally from frame one. The only thing that seems to keep him tethered to the Earth is taking care of his mother (Judith Roberts) and his job.
Joaquin Phoenix looks like the dictionary definition of the word "brute" in this film. His body is lumpy tissue with frightening muscle underneath, all adorned in scars. He is barely recognizable in this film, and his performance feels alarmingly real. It's a restrained performance, but that's more or less the style of the entire movie. Each actor feels reined in, and it works for the most part.
However, this film is absolutely about Joe. The other characters feel incidental, even the important ones. Any scene that happens outside of Joe's perspective is implied to be him imagining what's going on around him or visual manifestations of revelations he has. The only scene that is built from an outside perspective plays out entirely on security cameras, and that's all I'll say about that. Otherwise, it's all from his perspective, which gets really interesting to deal with as his psyche breaks down throughout the film.
That locked-in perspective is heightened by how the film handles flashbacks in terms of editing. It's not uncommon in film to show quick snippets of a flashback and then eventually cut into a larger uninterrupted flashback to provide more context. You Were Never Really Here only does this once, and barely. Most of the flashbacks are borderline jump-scares that upsettingly interrupt Joe's thoughts and current experiences. It's actually one of the better depictions of how sudden memories erupting can completely put you off your axis.
It's almost too effective though. There's a reason I watched this twice, and it's because I'm still slightly unsure of what some of the flashbacks were showing and what they meant. This is not a film you can glance away from for even a second. It not only demands your complete attention, but it requires you to engage with its unusual structure fully, and that's where this film is going to lose a lot of people. Again, I already called this an experimental film, but it really is an arthouse rendering of a hitman story.
And man is this movie just straight up brutal in its violence. It's not over-the-top in its depictions of gore and violence, but freakishly restrained while firmly falling into the R-rated category. The sound design makes every single punch and hit throughout feel about ten times worse than most movies with similar violence. Most of the violence happens off-camera, but the aftermath of violence stays onscreen for long stretches of time. There's one scene in particular that really lingers in my memory for how it zeroes in on a character who is dying slowly, but just like the security camera scene, that's all I'm going to say about that.
So, how do I actually feel about You Were Never Really Here? Funnily enough, I figured out exactly how I felt about it halfway through my second viewing:
I loved it, and of course I did. I was watching it in a theater for the second time.
This whole website is more or less a portfolio piece. It has samples of my original writing (screenplays, stageplays) but I write reviews on here to keep my critical skills sharp. I'm not doing this professionally in the sense that I'm paid, and the films I often see are about an hour away from my house. You Were Never Really Here is one of those films. In fact, it's only playing in one theater within an hour of my house in the entire state (though it will expand later this week).
The point is, I drove a second time and paid a second time to see this movie. It was obvious that something about it was dragging me forty miles across the state of Michigan to see it, but I needed to be sure that it wasn't just some sense of curiosity at this weird beast of a movie. I can say that it's because I thoroughly love it.
I love how it deconstructs and rips itself apart in terms of genre, I love the way its shot, I love the way its edited, I love its original score, I just love this movie. I only dislike three shots in the movie because I feel like they're way too on the nose symbolically, but the fact that I'm counting up individual shots that bother me should tell you just how meticulously constructed this whole film is. For all the weirdness in its artistic choices, it has a purpose, and I deeply respect that.
I can't believe I've gone this far into the review without mentioning that this is a Lynne Ramsay film. Ramsay doesn't direct movies often, and it's a real shame she doesn't. She clearly has a vision that's truly unlike other directors out there and the way she's pulled this creature of a movie together is awe-inspiring.
You Were Never Really Here is the true definition of a challenging but potentially rewarding film. I say "potentially" because this is a seriously weird movie that I wouldn't blame anyone for walking away from it baffled. This is the kind of atmospheric nightmare filmmaking I can completely get behind though.
And as a last note, if you're a fan of the Hotline Miami games, you might want to check this out, if only to imagine what a super depressing film adaptation of the games might look like.