When a film has an automatic comparison, it’s hard to shake that thought, but it takes a talented director to assume the form of those previous films and then take it in a new direction. “You Were Never Really Here” (2017) is one of those cases. Its release was met with many claiming it was an arthouse “Taken” (2007) but set in an unnerving brutal tone. Lynne Ramsay writes and directs this novel adaptation from Jonathan Ames and delivers a beautifully violent piece of film that needs a second viewing.
A Rewatch of “You Were Never Really Here”
“You Were Never Really Here” debuted at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival and wowed audiences while bringing home the Best Actor, for Joaquin Phoenix, and the Best Screenplay, for Ramsay. Outside of Cannes, the film received critical acclaim but never brought the casual audience into the fold. When a film is deemed an arthouse film, that typically turns off the casual moviegoer. This isn’t to bring judgment to anyone, it’s the state of the industry.
Set in New York City, “You Were Never Really Here” tells the story of Joe (Phoenix), a veteran who suffers from extreme PTSD from his time in the military, the FBI, and his troubled childhood experiencing his father’s abuse towards him and his mother. Joe experiences suicidal thoughts and tendencies throughout his everyday life and it seems to be a relief when he gets to work. Joe is basically a hitman in a sense. He recovers girls from sex trafficking rings and returns them to their families.
“Lynne Ramsay delivers a devastating tone that shapes this film into a statement of trauma. Joe is an exploration of what trauma can become when it’s unchecked, or even when it is.”
His home life consists of taking care of his oft-injured, elderly mother while taking on these assignments that require various levels of brutality. He can be especially violent. Equipped with simple hardware supplies and a ball-point hammer, Joe charges into these safe houses and commits his purge. Killing these criminals and sadists has a way of clearing his loud mind if only for a moment. The assignment we find him about to take though leads him down a path of corruption, shoot-outs, and a trail of bodies. Joe finds himself tangled in a web and struggles to cut his way out over the course of the night.
Lynne Ramsay delivers a devastating tone that shapes this film into a statement of trauma. Joe is an exploration of what trauma can become when it’s unchecked, or even when it is. There’s no proof that he has or hasn’t sought treatment outside of his pill-popping. Ramsay contrasts the solemn face of a killer with the blood spatter of his victims and those around him.
“While this film is a few years old, it’s still worth the time to watch, think, and then watch again once you’ve digested the film.”
Handled by a typical director, this would be a gorefest, but in her capable hands, we only see fleeting images of his brutal assault on the traffickers. The first infiltration is shown with a rotating set of security video cameras, and Joe only being seen exiting the frame in some while a body is strewn about the frame of another. A glance of his arm raised, poised for an attack before it cuts. Then, a few screens later, a body. The baseline comparison to “Taken” only highlights this as Liam Neeson is shown fighting and shooting the bad guys throughout three entire films about his family being abducted. Here, in “You Were Never Really Here”, the audience is trusted to visualize these ferocious attacks while witnessing the aftermath.
While this film is a few years old, it’s still worth the time to watch, think, and then watch again once you’ve digested the film. Interestingly enough, this was distributed by Amazon Studios and their track record in recent years for original content has been consistent with deep dramas. While other streaming services are loading up on quantity, perhaps Amazon sees the importance of art film and keeping a heavy, dark drama at the forefront of our minds. Many times, films like this and “Manchester by the Sea” (2016) are meant for repeat viewings just to level ourselves with the emotions on display. A character like Joe isn’t someone we all get to know well, we have to explore the actions and reactions he experiences in any given circumstance.