You were never really here image

Joaquin Phoenix rescues a girl from a prostitution ring in the brutal You Were Never Really Here

Some fun, lighthearted films that premiered this 4/20 weekend include I Feel Pretty, the Amy Schumer PG-13 rom-com and Super Troopers 2, the crowdfunded sequel to the original stoner comedy from 2001. You Were Never Really Here is not one of these fun movies. Directed and written by Lynne Ramsay, it’s a painful, brutal story that doesn’t pull any punches. The tone is grim, subject material dour and violence gruesome. It’s not a feel-good movie by any stretch of the imagination, and an older woman actually left the theatre an hour in during a particularly gory moment. But if you can stomach it, You Were Never Really Here is an expertly crafted film.

The story centers on Joe, played by Joaquin Phoenix. Joe is a gun for hire with a brutal past of abuse and wartime atrocities, who is tasked with rescuing a senator’s daughter from an underage prostitution ring. Without spoiling anything, the mission goes awry, people Joe cares about get involved, and Joe has to fight for his life.

A lot about this movie is done well, but first and foremost is Joaquin Phoenix. This guy is just the best actor alive. His work in Her and The Master is unparalleled, and he morphs into another exemplary role as Joe. He put on a lot of weight, grew out his beard and carries himself with an unstoppable force. Watching him in his action scenes is incredible. The deep-rooted pain, both physical and psychological, is always present, and you just want this guy to catch a break. He is a force of nature and carries the movie on his back, like a master actor should.

Lynne Ramsay does a tremendous job telling a story primarily through visuals rather than dialogue. Joe is a silent guy, only talking when necessary and keeping to himself, like a skilled hitman should. That puts more emphasis on a director’s ability to tell a story visually, and Ramsay pulls it off. It’s a beautiful movie, which makes the incredibly depressing story even more bittersweet. One scene in particular, when Joe is raiding the underage brothel, is shot entirely through security cameras, and it's a work of art.

The sound design of You Were Never Really Here is like a character all on its own. An incredible, pulsing, abrasive soundtrack acts as the heartbeat to the film, putting the audience on edge at all times. Each sound effect of a punch or gunshot has an unbridled weight behind it, and the PTSD of Joe is portrayed through everyday noises being uncomfortably loud. Juxtaposition of some lighthearted, old-timey songs overlayed during the brutal violent scenes complicates the tone in a very good way.  

This is absolutely not a film for everyone. The traumatic subject material and unpleasant violence is tough to sit through. But Lynne Ramsay made a tour de force, a brutal, ugly masterpiece. You Were Never Really Here is a phenomenal film, just don’t take grandma.

Vox Rating: VVVV (4/5)

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