Movie Review: You Were Never Really Here

Thanks to everyone for supporting our Oscar Season posts last week: we took some time away to slump in front of the TV and watch some garbage for a while, but we’re back to regularly scheduled programming now, with our next MCU restrospective out on Sunday.

And in the meantime, let’s get back into No But Listen by taking a look at one of the best films of the year so far: You Were Never Really Here, directed by Lynne Ramsay and starring Joaquin Phoenix. It follows the story of Joe, a self-described hired gun, sent to retrieve the daughter of a political candidate who has been kidnapped to a child sex ring.

Honestly, if I was so inclined, I could just sit here and list off a bunch of adjectives that describe what a fucking masterpiece this movie is. Raw, taut, hypnotic, moving, dense, deft, tender, brutal, bold, heart-breaking, toe-curling, jaw-clenching; the sort of film that has a non-smoker reaching for a fag in the aftermath just to calm their nerves. Lynne Ramsay has always been a director with an exceptional eye for character (see also, her spectacular adaptation of the zeitgeist hit novel We Need to Talk About Kevin, which turned me all the way around on Tilda Swinton), and this is perhaps her most inventive and compelling character study yet.

Because that what this movie is – sure, the story might sound like something you’ve heard a hundred times before, but it’s really got very little to do with what you’ll walk out of the cinema remembering. What you’ll come away with – or at least what I did – is hard to find the words to do justice to.

Joe is a violent man. That’s his job – he’s brutal, self-described, and kills more people with a hammer in this movie that I have in at least the last couple of weeks. But we’ve seen plenty of brawny, anti-heroic grizzled hitmen swooping in to save the innocent young white girl from peril before, so that’s not a story the film bothers to tell. No, from the very start, we see a tenderness in Joe that’s as significant to the person he is as the violent nature of his job, if not more so – Joaquin Phoenix towers in a career-defining performance, easily sidestepping the trap of depicting Joe as either a robotic product of his violent past or someone completely unencumbered by it, his vulnerability constantly bubbling close to the surface in this impossibly compelling, contradictory investigation of the way violence splays out to cover a life.

Honestly, Joe is the kind of character you walk away from a movie having imprinted on, a testament to both Ramsay’s excellent direction (and screenwriting – she adapted the film from Johnathan Ames’ novel) and Joaquin Phoenix as the assured, era-defining performer that he has always been. Devastating doesn’t do this character and this performance justice, I promise you: Joe will quietly find some way into your raw, ugly parts and stay there.

Beyond that, Lynne Ramsay is in charge with the direction here, with a film that feels as though it’s humming with activity and beating with a constant, threatening pulse, studded through with moments of gut-wrenching violence that make your stomach twist.: she creeps up on the action movie and sticks a knife between it’s ribs, and what comes out of that is a film with a firm grip on how to depict violence in a way that chills instead of thrills. She deserves some serious credit, too, for managing to handle tricky subjects such as Joe’s abusive childhood and child sex slavery with a great deal of nuance that lets You Were Never Really Here sidestep the issue of exploitation.

Honestly, You Were Never Really Here is without question the best film I’ve seen this year. It’s really hard to do it justice when all I want to do is reach through the screen, grab you by the shoulders, and yell “fucking watch it!” directly into your face. Gut-wrenching but thoroughly rewarding, Lynne Ramsay’s latest is already a classic, and you need to get caught up.

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