You Were Never Really Here is a gripping psychological thriller and a dark and disturbing character study with Joaquin Phoenix putting in a thrilling lead performance.
The film follows Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), a veteran living with PTSD who spends his time finding and rescuing missing girls. On this job however he stumbles into a larger conspiracy that pushes him right to the edge. Writer/Director Lynne Ramsay has crafted and told this story in a brilliant way unique to her style and it sets this film aside from other somewhat similar stories. What she chooses to focus on in each scene and the scope of the story she is depicting is what makes it so gripping and intense all the way through.
At its core this film is a deep character study, focusing entirely on Joe as you are seeing every event from within his current mindset which for a number of reasons isn’t stable. Joe is unstable, violent, unpredictable, and a lot of these traits are bought out in the booming score and rather confronting camera-work and imagery. What is brilliant about the way this is all handled is that Lynne Ramsay never loses sight of her focus, the story and the camera is always centred on Joe and as tempting as it may be to cut to the action she keeps your eye locked onto Joe. She knows when to show the brutality and the violence and exactly when not to, so where there are a tonne of violent events in here you don’t actually see all that many of them. She has executed a very less-is-more approach to telling this story and it works amazingly well. Sometimes, seeing the aftermath of a horrific event is more intriguing and captivating than seeing it happen on-screen as it lets you fill in the gaps, enticing a certain level of audience engagement and interaction.
Joe is a character that wouldn’t work without the captivating performance from Joaquin Phoenix who is mesmerising through the entire film. There isn’t a lot of dialogue in this film with some lengthy scenes containing barely a spoken word leaving Phoenix to convey the pain, torture, and conflict his character is experiencing purely through body language and emotion. The subtleties he brings to the performance really flesh out the character and make him seem like a damaged individual who could exist, very grounded and real, and someone who can form an emotional attachment to. As for the rest of the cast involved, as this is primarily a character study of Joe none of the supporting characters really get all that much screen-time. Veteran actress Judith Roberts is strong in her limited scenes as Joe’s mother and is the character who stands out the most besides Joe himself due to the impact of their scenes together. Then there’s Ekaterina Samsonov who plays Nina and is also great in her limited scenes adding to the emotional and weight of some key scenes.
There is a very minimalistic approach to the storytelling here where Ramsay says a lot with very little, allowing the audience to piece things together and fill in any information that is implied or eluded to. Much like the approach to violence the story isn’t necessarily spoon-fed to the audience and is still brilliantly told through passing dialogue and letting Joe’s actions speak. Joe’s backstory is revealed to us in exquisite fashion over time as all together there may be 15-20 seconds dedicated to briefing us on his past but you gather plenty of information from how it’s woven into the present story. There are some details about the story that are a little too unspoken and may lead to a tad of confusion if it isn’t all pieced together but for the most part it’s a very easy story to follow as it violently unfolds.
In the end You Were Never Really Here is a fantastic film which stands out in the psychological thriller sub-genre with a fresh minimalistic take on storytelling and a heavily character-centric story. Lynne Ramsay proves she’s more than capable at crafting a captivating story and telling it in a way that is fresh and provocative and not afraid to get quite confronting. It’s a somewhat slower story so some may not respond to that but the gripping intensity will have you forgetting about the pace and runtime as it will all fly by.
You Were Never Really Here was screened and reviewed as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival.
This was originally posted on the AU review: http://launch.theaureview.com/film/miff-review-you-were-never-really-here-usa-2018-is-a-gripping-psychological-thriller-led-by-a-captivating-joaquin-phoenix/