****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!****
My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
My Recommendation: SEE IT - A terrific film but be forewarned, it is marketed as a more conventional action-thriller but it is art house cinema to the core. If your tastes run to the more mainstream, you will probably hate this movie.
You Were Never Really Here, written and directed by Lynne Ramsay (based on the book of the same name by Jonathan Ames), is the story of Joe, a former military and law enforcement man who rescues girls who are being trafficked in the sex trade. The film stars Joaquin Phoenix as Joe, with supporting performances from Ekaterina Samsonov and Judith Roberts.
If Taxi Driver and Blue Velvet went on a date, the movie they'd go see would be Lynne Ramsay's You Were Never Really Here. While not being quite the cinematic masterpieces that are those two films, You Were Never Really Here is still the best movie I've seen so far this year due to the originality and skill of its director, Lynne Ramsay, and the otherworldly talent of its lead actor, Joaquin Phoenix.
You Were Never Really Here is a wonderfully ambitious, hypnotically tense, taut and dark art house character study. Director Ramsay has created a mesmerizing impressionist PTSD fever dream that is both unsettling and enlightening.
The film is fueled by Joaquin Phoenix's staggering performance as Joe, a tortured soul struggling to navigate the world as he spirals downward through it. Phoenix is the greatest actor working on the planet right now, and his Joe is a testament to his talent, mastery of craft and artistic commitment. Seen in conjunction with his powerful work in The Master, Phoenix's performance in You Were Never Really Here puts him onto the Mount Rushmore of actors.
Phoenix seamlessly morphs into the muscular Joe, a husky vigilante who inflicts his righteous violence upon the wicked with a ball-peen hammer. Phoenix's Joe has a plodding and heavy gait accompanied by thunderous footsteps, aided by the sound department, that land with a resounding thud. Joe walks heavy on the earth because of the burdensome cross he has to bear. Like a giant, twisted oak tree swaying in the wind, Joe yearns to break free from this world of pain and fly off to the stars, but his sentence is to be welded firmly to the ground and to suffer the most heinous slings and arrows that life can conjure.
Joe is undoubtedly a fallen angel, and even has the scars where wings used to be to prove it, but like some cross between Chiron, Sisyphus and a hammer wielding Thor, he has turned his punishment into penance, and tries to redeem himself by saving others.
Phoenix's performance is that of an open nerve simultaneously screaming out in agony and trying to kill itself to deaden the pain. Intense, magnetic and menacing, Phoenix uses strategic stillness and silence mixed with a ferociously vivid inner life and intentionality to create a Joe that is ominously compelling.
Lynne Ramsay has directed some intriguing films in the past, the most notable being the stellar Ratcatcher and We Need To Talk About Kevin. Never a slave to convention, Ramsay turns the vigilante genre on its head in You Were Never Really Here by throwing the audience into the twisted psyche of her protagonist, Joe. With the brief, unexplained and impressionist glimpses into Joe's past, Ramsay relies on her audience to put the pieces together. More conventional audiences, weened on Spielberg films, will no doubt recoil at such demands from a director who bravely asks questions as opposed to gives answers, but those who dare accept the challenge receive the gift of exquisite cinema.
Ramsay and cinematographer Thomas Townend use different camera and film styles to create intimacy and tension within viewers. Townend's use of light and shadow and his subdued color palette give the film a gritty yet surreal visual aesthetic that perfectly matches the subtext of the movie.
Even though You Were Never Here is certainly a violent film, the decision by Ramsay to, unlike Taxi Driver, not show an orgy of violence is an interesting one. I understand the thinking that could go into making that decision, and while I disagree with that aesthetic choice, I respect Ramsay's stylistic commitment. By not explicitly showing the violence, Ramsay never allows the audience to feel cathartic relief from the torture inflicted upon Joe's soul.
I also admired Ramsay's deft use of music, which is very reminiscent of Blue Velvet, as is the theme of revealing the insidious rot just beneath the veneer of normalcy in America. Ramsay's use of camera movement and the setting of New York would seem to be tributes to Scorsese's Taxi Driver, and that too is thematically appropriate, as Joe could be Travis Bickle's nephew.
You Were Never Really Here is in many ways an unconventional film and viewers should be aware of that going in. If you watch the film as just a straight forward exercise in storytelling, and nit-pick inconsistencies and demand more realistic unfolding of events, then you will be both frustrated and disappointed and miss the gem hiding just beneath the movie’s surface. But if you watch the film as if it were a PTSD inspired dream/nightmare of Joe, with all of the improbabilities and inconsistencies that go along with that scenario, then You Were Never Really Here is both an invigorating and satisfying cinematic experience. My recommendation to anyone who goes to see the film is to suspend your disbelief and watch it less as a narrative adventure and more as a character study that dives into the mind of a tortured soul.
Keeping that advice in mind, I highly recommend any viewers who enjoy art house cinema to go see You Were Never Really Here as fast as you can…because a film like this may actually leave theaters so fast it will feel like it was never really here. For cinephiles it would be a sin to miss this movie and Joaquin Phoenix's truly magnificent performance. For less adventurous movie-goers, You Were Never Really Here might be an art house bridge too far, as it asks a lot of its audience and some people may be reluctant to abandon their familiar approach to watching films, but that will truly be their loss.
A VERY BRIEF COMMENTARY WITH SPOILERS
****WARNING: THIS SECTION CONTAINS BIG SPOILERS****
****SPOILERS AHEAD - YOU’VE BEEN WARNED!!!****
There is a storyline in You Were Never Really There where a pedophile ring that services very powerful men is involved. I know that some viewers will roll their eyes at this narrative thinking it is an absurd and improbable "conspiracy". I would caution against that response.
If any readers are interested in the subject, there are a plethora of materials out there to check out, and they are all very disturbing but informative.
My advice would be to go read up on Jeffrey Epstein and his "Lolita Express" airplane and his connection to Donald Trump, Bill Clinton and other powerful men including Alan Dershowitz. Epstein got busted for soliciting an underage girl for prostitution but got the deal of the century from the D.A. and barely spent any time in prison. I wonder why?
I recommend readers go check out the documentary Who Took Johnny? on Netflix as well. This is a very disturbing look into the disappearance of Johnny Gosch, the first milk carton kid, and the unseemly world hiding just beneath the surface of America.
If you can find it, which is no easy task, I also recommend watching the documentary The Franklin Affair and reading up on that topic as well. The Franklin Affair is tied into the Johnny Gosch story as well. Considering we are currently being inundated with stories about how wonderful George HW Bush is, it might be enlightening for readers to come to know more about the darker sides of the man and how the Franklin Affair story got scuttled.
And one final thing to keep in mind when trying to process the idea of powerful people abusing children with impunity…remember the extent of the Catholic Church scandal, where not only the church, but police and courts protected abusers for decades and allowed them to continue to rape children.
Also remember just this past year when decades of abuse by the likes of Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Kevin Spacey, Brett Ratner and on and on came to light. You think Corey Feldman is crazy because he talks about high powered people in Hollywood preying on children? Well…Corey Feldman might be crazy…but he isn't wrong. Some of the most prominent and powerful people in Hollywood are monsters who devour children and they are hiding in plain sight.
Jeffrey Epstein, Johnny Gosch, The Franklin Affair, The Church Scandal…these are all just the tip of the iceberg. Sadly, the reality is that the pedophile club in You Were Never Really Here is not as far fetched as we'd like to believe and is much more common than we'd like to think. Go read up on the subject and learn the uncomfortable truth.