You Were Never Really Here (2018) - Film Review
It’s hard to exactly pin-down what makes You Were Never Really Here such a unique film. Not because it’s lacking in inspiration, but because it’s just drenched in polarizing artistry. It's defined by moments that are bound to either push away or pull in the audience. This is complicated even further by it’s frenetic edit, that comes across more as a series of moments than a series of logically progressing scenes. With a film that breaks orthodoxy in such extreme ways it’s easy to understand the disparate public opinion that hangs over it. But just like horror films require work and participation of the audience, films like this require participation and consideration. In the case of You Were Never Really Here, that effort pays incredible dividends.
Writer and Director, Lynne Ramsay (We Need To Talk About Kevin, Morvern Callar) has her hands deep into the fabric of each scene. For the most part, this is to immense benefit, as the twists and turns of the expressionistic action are (generally) exquisitely intertwined with scenes that push the plot forward. For it’s runtime (a lightning flash quick hour and twenty-nine minutes) it’s just chock full of plot and concept. But if I have a critique of You Were Never Really Here, it’s that Ramsay perhaps takes larger bites than she needs to to adequately convey the concepts and themes she does. What may come off as goose bump inducing revelations in one scene are smoke and mirrors in another.
While there are perhaps individual critiques one could make of moments throughout the film, this is I believe the most important one to make, because it lies dead center at the heart of the general distaste for the movie. But while this critique could be valid, it’s only valid to a certain point. Because You Were Never Really Here orbits around an elegant thesis that guides even the most inexplicable moments in the film. For more on that, see my spoiler filled podcast on the film.
Joaquin Phoenix portrays Joe, a veteran with post traumatic stress disorder, compounded with what seems to be a childhood riddled with physical abuse. Joe battles his past, but does so all while being a hired gun, retrieving children that have been kidnapped and sold in to sex trafficking rings. But unlike other thrillers that have dealt with the subject (Taken) Ramsay postures Joe not as a polished operative, who’s one step ahead of the bad guys. The violence Joe carries out is methodical, but not smooth, and brutal, but held at a distance. This sends an incredibly clear message. You Were Never Really Here is not just about taking violence to the bad guys. It’s much more complicated, and honestly, much more satisfying and important than that.
You Were Never Really Here has perhaps the greatest use of flashbacks that I’ve seen in any film. We rely on these scenes not as a way of contributing information to the plot, but to add important subtext to each action he takes. This is all in an effort to again show that this film isn’t about what Joe does, as much it’s about who he IS. Each flashback is no more than a moment or two. They’re disorienting, dark, and intensely sad—which is much like the rest of the film. But it’s beyond just dark. You Were Never Really Here is in many ways a horror film. Even the score emulates this idea, with it’s jittering, shaky tones giving horrific personality to these brutal moments.
Technically, the film goes from moments of visual transcendence (as Joe floats through the water holding a body) to moments of general banality. Perhaps this is deliberate, as it allows Ramsay room to maneuver between expressionistic and objective composition and action. While I wouldn’t normally be one to advocate banal cinematography, I actually believe it serves a unique purpose here. That purpose is to give the film some dynamics, because otherwise the film would be so focused on detail and specific action than any scene in particular. There are only a small handful of moments where you even see a couple people interacting in the same shot. It’s such a subjective lens that these objective moments ground us, and give reality. Perfection? Maybe not. But function? Absolutely.
It’s almost impossible to adequately rate films like You Were Never Really Here because it’s so unorthodox and constantly challenges you. It makes you ask the question, “what do I want out of film?” Depending on your answer, this film may not be for you. And so when I’m rating a film, it’s hard to know how much I should take that into account. But for me what’s unavoidable about You Were Never Really Here is it’s direct, laser focused intent—An intent that blooms upon retrospection and a second viewing. And perhaps it isn’t a perfect film, but squared within all of it’s gritty, unpolished edges, You Were Never Really Here is a transcendent moment for cinema in 2018.
- First Impression: 82
- Lasting Impression: 92
- Technical Excellence: 80
- Coherence: 70
Overall Score: 81
Bret Hoy is the creator and co-editor of Monolith Medium, an award winning filmmaker, and writer.