I went into this one purely on faith in recommendations, because on paper this movie did not sound like something I would want to watch. And that is why recommendations are good! You Were Never Really Here is the rough story of a troubled, bloody hitman on a mission to rescue a mysterious teenage girl from an underage prostitution ring. “I hear you’re brutal,” another man says to him at one point. “I can be,” he simply responds. So this sounds like you know what this is, right? And if you’re me you’re thinking, ehhh I don’t know. Even with Joaquin Phoenix in the lead, is this really going to be able to overcome itself? Oh boy is it. Because You Were Never Really Here transcends its genre, or just flatly does something entirely different with it. This is what you get when a movie with this plot is written and directed by a female filmmaker: something else.
Lynne Ramsay is fascinated with violence, but absolutely never, ever with glorifying it. The violence in her movie is never cool or badass, it only hurts. We spend far, far more time looking at the mental wounds violence has inflicted on the main character, physical wounds too, than actually seeing it carried out. In fact his big fight scenes are all elided, stunningly cut down into these dispersed stationary shots like you’re turning several pages of a book at a time, following along just behind him in the aftermath, or skipping ahead to spaces similarly devoid of action, just holding a bad promise. What it means is that this ultimately isn’t a film about violence after all, but a film about trauma. We don’t see any girls abused. We don’t see young Joe abused either, although the very present and troubling flashbacks make it clear his nightmare started early, and what he experienced in Iraq just continued the breakage that his father began.
This is a movie with the rhythm of PTSD, simultaneously numbed and sharply jerking and fearful and nauseated, disassociated, attacked and attacking, fierce and sad and lost. As you can see I’m still talking about the editing—Joe Bidi’s work is that good! And on the score is Jonny Greenwood, the film world’s current favorite brilliant, with his compositions like auditory cinematography. Speaking of the camera, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen Joaquin Phoenix filmed under the direction of a woman, and he’s developed this punished physicality that renders his body into something like a dank knotted rope around a tree with the bark grown over it. He hurts just to watch. He’s perfect for this project, in other words.