You Were Never Really Here is a 2017 neo-noir starring Joaquin Phoenix and directed by Lynne Ramsay. I saw this back in 2018 and it instantly became one of my favorite films. At the time, it was actually my second favorite film. Now it falls in the top 10 somewhere, but it’s one of the best films I’ve ever seen. I will be going into spoilers so please watch it if you haven’t seen it.
Lynne Ramsay directed the hell out of this film. I can say with confidence that this is one of the best directed films I’ve ever seen. From the very beginning, Ramsay only gives us uncomfortable closeups of a man suffocating himself and then what looks like destroying evidence of a crime. It grabs our attention right off the bat. From then on, the story unfolds and her direction is consistent and perfectly executed. She’s one of the best filmmakers working today and I can’t wait to see what she makes next.
Ramsay adapted the screenplay from the 2013 novella of the same name written by Jonathan Ames. The story is simple but again, Ramsay’s direction really makes it unique. This is a quiet film with not much dialogue so it relies mostly on visuals. It’s a great example of show don’t tell. The story is very noirish. It’s about a teenage girl who goes missing. A jaded, brutal enforcer attempts a rescue mission. He uncovers corruption and abuse of power along his way and will use any means necessary to save the girl. It’s nothing original but I love it because it’s something you’d see in an old classic film noir. We have a broken protagonist who investigates a crime and soon uncovers a conspiracy. It’s perfect.
Jonny Greenwood is the composer for this film and the score proves once again he’s one of the best composers of our generation. His score for this film is perfect. Every track matches each scene beautifully. It elevates the film into a whole other level. The score is different but for a reason. Some tracks represent the mental state of the protagonist in that moment. Some tracks are off beat, representing how the protagonist is off. Some tracks are beautiful like the underwater scene. The main theme is a banger and I love the synth-like sound. The scenes with the protagonist driving around New York City is so fucking awesome. The score for this film is perfect and one of my all time favorites.
Joaquin Phoenix stars as Joe, the protagonist, and he delivers one of his best performances. Joe suffers from severe PTSD and other mental issues and Phoenix sells the trauma of the character beautifully. As the film goes on, we see little bits of Joe’s past. I love how it’s subtle and it makes us want for more. Joe has been through a lot in life and we understand him. Throughout the film, he almost attempts suicide in different ways but backs out before he goes through with it. It’s hard to watch. He was in the military and in the FBI. He has been trained to kill and investigate with precision due to those positions. Those are also his downfall because he has seen some truly awful things. He’s a fascinating protagonist because he does bad things for all the right reasons. I love that he saves children from terrible situations. I love that he kills the bad guys because if he wouldn’t then they would continue doing terrible things to children. Phoenix really should’ve been nominated and won an Oscar for his performance.
The film does an excellent job with showcasing the horrors of PTSD. Like I said, we see Joe’s past throughout the film and how it has affected his life. He only trusts a few people, like his mom and John, his partner who gives him the jobs. He doesn’t want anyone knowing where he lives or anything about him. He’s very quiet but in his eyes we see how disturbed he is. I love the scene when Joe’s mom asks about an ex-girlfriend and a scene later we see Joe imagining her with a black eye. What could that mean? Was Joe abusive to her? Is it because of his troubled past? We never find out. I love the ambiguity of the story. Joe’s past is vital to the story. We see when he was a kid and how his father abused him and his mother. His father used a hammer on them and it’s reincorporated with Joe using the same hammer as his weapon of choice. It’s brilliant and perfectly executed.
This is a dark film. There are a lot of disturbing scenes throughout. We see in Joe’s past that a girl in the middle east was killed for a candy bar. We also see that he witnessed a dozen or so dead bodies from a raid when he was in the FBI. Those moments are small but they add a lot to the story. The darkest scene in the film is when Angel and his son are killed. The way it’s set up and executed is so disturbing. We see the guns pointed directly at their heads, with their faces full of fear, and it cuts away when the gunshots go off. It’s really effective. The story revolves around Joe saving children from awful situations so it fits that this film has these dark and disturbing scenes.
My favorite scene in the whole film is the underwater scene. Joe’s mom is murdered and he takes her body to this peaceful lake where he puts rocks in the bag she’s in so her body can sink to the bottom. Joe is wearing a suit filled with rocks too so he can die with her in the water. We see his silhouette floating underwater as he releases her body. She sinks to the bottom as he floats in the same position. As she sinks, he sees Nina sinking too. Representing that if he dies, she dies. That gives him motivation to not kill himself and save Nina. This scene is perfect in every aspect of the way. It’s perfectly executed. The music is what makes it work so well. I love the music in this scene. It’s another example of how music can elevate a scene into a whole other level. The cinematography is gorgeous. Words cannot express how perfect the scene is and how much I love it.
Ekaterina Samsonov plays Nina Votto and she’s a highlight of the film. She’s the driving force of the plot and the one Joe needs to save. I feel horrible for what she goes through. She’s basically the same as Joe. She goes through a horrible traumatic event at a young age. The difference is, she’s optimistic about the future, while Joe is the opposite who would rather end his life. I love that in the end, after Joe imagines killing himself, Nina looks at Joe and says "It's a beautiful day." When Joe’s mom died, he didn’t want to live anymore, but saving Nina and raising her gives him a reason to live again. I love that. This film has a perfect ending.
In the end, this is one of the best films I’ve ever seen. It’s perfect in every way. The score is a banger. The themes are complex and well flushed out. It’s a dark neo-noir that I’d consider one of the greatest films ever made.