Film Review: You Were Never Really Here.

Film Review Series by Lance Sinclair.

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This week State Library of Queensland’s cinephile, Lance Sinclair, reviews You Were Never Really Here, directed by Lynne Ramsay and staring Joaquin Phoenix and Ekaterina Samsonov.

Image from film You Were Never Really Here, directed by Lynne Ramsay, produced by Film4 Productions et al, streamed on Kanopy database.


Joaquin Phoenix, consistent wild card of modern American cinema, was greeted with equal amounts of praise and scorn for his role in the divisive, timely Joker in 2019 – a film that many argued reflected the troubled pulse of the chaotic world it was released into. But for a deeper look at fractured masculinity, what it is capable of and whether there can be any redemption from terrible deeds, turning our gaze two years earlier to his equally intense performance in You Were Never Really Here yields results that linger long in the mind.

Lynne Ramsay, a director whose work consistently presents us with the lives of difficult, prickly, hurt people in her films (her 2002 film Morven Callar feels like a weird cousin of this movie, as it follows another adrift protagonist in search of meaning in a world that has no place for them) directs Phoenix with an eye towards compassion. She chooses to show the hero of our story as someone deeply vulnerable and filled with the capacity for love, in refreshing contrast to the standard, easier way a story like this would generally be presented to us.

And it’s a story that’s been told on the screen many times, often with the slightest of tweaks. Phoenix plays Joe, a veteran of unspecified military service who now lives his life as a privately contracted man of violence. Specifically, he retrieves children that have been abducted while enacting punishment on those who would prey on them. It’s an idea that borders on ridiculous, for its straw-man arguments justifying brutality and the convenience of its premise. It’s the fantasy bedrock of countless vigilante action movies – allowing the viewer to revel in baser concepts of might making right, without having to weigh any moral consequence. From the right-wing, borderline racist fantasies of Death Wish and Dirty Harry in the 1970s through to the supposedly progressive politics of recent Netflix feature The Old Guard, cartoonish viciousness against faceless others is a cinematic blanket we still seem to take comfort in.

In You Were Never Really Here, our cipher Joe is a desperately sad, suicidal man who cares for his ailing mother in their sprawling ramshackle house, keeping their lives maintained through the only skill he seems to possess. The work he chooses is “good”, if it were to be balanced on a cosmic scale, but any satisfaction or joy has left his life a long time ago, if it was ever there. Much like his character Arthur in the Joker film, he’s a real human living in the framework of a fictional story, crippled with the scars of this bizarre world.

The score to the film puts us firmly in the theatrically gritty world made for us here – composed  by Johnny Greenwood, whose atonal, gut-pulling soundtracks for There Will Be Blood, The Master and Phantom Thread cannot be underestimated in their contribution to why those pictures work, gives us a framework of traditionally slick dark action movie pulses that quickly skew into much stranger zones, all de-tuned guitar and groaning tones that give us no comfort or stability.  For a film about force and its effects, the relative restraint used by Ramsay in what she chooses to show us on screen, in tandem with Greenwood’s eerie orchestrations makes for something far more potent than a more literal, easier route.

The thing about this movie is that it’s strangely hopeful. By giving us a flawed human to hover over and spend this time with, along with the deux ex machina of one last, soul saving case (Ekaterina Samsonov as Nina, who is honestly more of a cipher or concept than she is an actual character) it still sits firmly in the family of action films that spawned it, although perhaps as the weird outlier relative that we don’t speak about too much. Startling, both in its occasional beauty as much as its darkness, this is a movie that will repel some, while unexpectedly nestling into the hearts of others who may have come to it looking for cheaper thrills.

Further reading

  • A path that led to each other; Joaquin Phoenix and Lynne Ramsay follow their instincts to find 'You Were Never Really Here.' Olsen, Mark; 2018, Apr. 08. Los Angeles Times ; E.6. (article)
  • Killer Joe. Singer, Leigh; 2018. Sight and Sound; Vol. 28(4), pp.32-36. (article)
  • Details are acoustical: The films of Lynne Ramsay. Cullen, Catherine; 2001. Afterimage; Vol. 29(1), pp.12-13. (article
  • How Joaquin Phoenix got his hunger back. Anonymous, 2018, Mar. 03. The Daily Telegraph; p.4 (article)
  • Cinema and Evil : Moral Complexities and the “Dangerous” Film. Waldron, Dara : Cambridge Scholars Publishing ; 2013  (ebook)
  • Social Realism : Art, Nationhood and Politics. David. Forrest ; Cambridge Scholars Publishing ; 2013 (ebook)

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