ITOL Top 50 Films of the Decade, Entry No. 4: You Were Never Really Here

Year: 2017

Runtime: 98 Minutes

Director: Lynne Ramsay

Writer: Lynne Ramsay, based on the book by Jonathan Ames

Stars: Joaquin Phoenix, Judith Roberts, Ekaterina Samsonov, John Doman, Alex Manette  

By James Cain

(Trigger warning: Discussion of a film that includes themes of child abuse, domestic violence, and rape) 

Most of us have at least a little trauma in us. Be it something minute or something colossal, these pockets of pain have the potential to fuck us up beyond our wildest dreams if not taken care of properly. And it’s on this note that master-filmmaker Lynne Ramsay – featured previously on this series with “We Need To Talk About Kevin” – brings us “You Were Never Really Here”.

What She Said:

“Lynne Ramsey has arrived back on our screens with a lean-cut, all-consuming character study that raises only questions and never answers; can we outlive our trauma or must we face it?”

Millicent Thomas, Screen Queens

Our protagonist is Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), a man who has suffered tremendous trauma in his life. As a child, he and his mother were violently abused by the family’s patriarch; during his time in the army, Joe’s horrors included seeing one child shoot another dead for the chocolate bar he’d just gifted; as an agent of the FBI, he uncovered a container full of dead girls. As a result, we meet Joe as a man barely holding on. The only thing stopping him from seeing through his flirtations with suicide is his dear mum (Judith Roberts). His job as a hired gun (or more accurately, hammer) gives him a homicidal outlet for his rage issues, a problem barely held at bay by black-market pharmaceuticals.

Joaquin Phoenix and Ekaterina Samsonov in You Were Never Really Here (2017) (IMBD)

Presumably as a result of his grisly find as a Fed, Joe specialises in sex-trafficking cases. His latest mission: Find Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), teenage daughter of New York State senator Albert Votto (Alex Manette), and deliver painful justice unto the men who took her. In doing so, Joe uncovers a paedophile ring catering to New York’s elite that does indeed go all the way to the top.

“You Were Never Really Here” is Ramsay’s fourth feature film and the first one since her feature debut (1999’s “Ratcatcher”). Her craft evolving, with this noir thriller the Scottish filmmaker delivers arguably her best work yet. This is a New York that prays on the vulnerable, one where authority can’t be trusted at best and will murder you at worst. Given that we’re with Joe all the way, Ramsay is able to give us an intensely singular and immersive journey, following our haunted gumshoe as he walks further and further into this pitch-black hell.

Joaquin Phoenix in You Were Never Really Here (2017) © Alison Cohen Rosa | Amazon Studios

Even more so than with “We Need To Talk About Kevin”, the sound of “You Were Never Really Here” is one of the film’s strongest assets. Joe’s horrendous trauma has led to him becoming a very sick man, a supernova of rage, anxiety and suicidal longing barely held together by a shell of bruised, muscular flesh. It’s very fitting, then, that you’re never allowed to feel at ease during the film, and sound designer Paul Davies (whose stellar work gave “We Need To Talk About Kevin” much of its power) putting you inside Joe’s nightmare.

What She Said:

“As an intense, ruthless thriller, You Were Never Really Here ticks the boxes in terms of narrative, style and acting.”

Katie Smith-Wong, Flick Feast

Twitter: @Guitargalchina

The film is full of shrill, tense noises and ambiguous sound, the city a wasps nest that never ceases humming. Another returning “Kevin” alumni who brings this disturbing world to life is Johnny Greenwood (hopefully now Ramsay’s composer of choice). His score is vital to understanding Joe, be it when our hero is on the hunt, or facing oblivion and sorely tempted to just embrace the big sleep.

There are two reasons why one might find the movie topical. Firstly, Joe reminds us of the mental illness epidemic that’s killing people worldwide, with suicide being the biggest killer of men under 45. Secondly, investigations are still ongoing into Jeffrey Epstein’s paedophile ring. Did Epstein kill himself? Did Prince Andrew sleep with a teenager? Can we expect to see Ghislaine Maxwell sent to jail? These questions are still in the headlines. And while we can only hope that the law will effectively destroy paedophile rings, given how prevalent a horror sex trafficking is, there’s a dark satisfaction to seeing a victim of child abuse slaughter nonces and pimps with a hammer.

What She Said:

“You Were Never Really Here is a deep dive into the suffocating world of someone’s personal hell.”

Michelle Kisner, The Movie Sleuth

Having recently enjoyed much acclaim for his similarly dark turn in “Joker”, Phoenix is incredible in the film. Despite being a mentally-ill murderer for hire – one that will punch you if you keep him waiting on a bad day – Joe is an immensely sympathetic character. Despite not always finding it easy, he clearly loves caring for and doting on his infirm mother. He’s a hulking lone bear, not dissimilar to Forest Whittaker in “Ghost Dog” – albeit with zen replaced by anxiety.

you were never really hee
Joaquin Phoenix in You Were Never Really Here (2017) (IMDB)

And while Ramsay gets should get much of the credit for this incredible character, it’s hard to see anyone but Phoenix pulling it off successfully. He also has superb chemistry with an excellent Samsonov as the teenage Nina, which is a huge relief given the pitch-black subject matter. They’re bonded as survivors of horrendous torture; when she tries to initiate sex as thanks for his aid, Joe stops her with a paternal softness that illustrates how he is the rarest of things in her world – a man who wants nothing from her.

“You Were Never Really Here isn’t for everyone. It’s a psycho-noir thriller about a lunatic with a hammer taking on a murderous cabal of powerful paedophiles, in a world of violence, pain and little closure. But thanks to Ramsay, Phoenix and the rest of the cast and crew, this is a dark journey worth taking.

The Extra Bits

Where to watch:

Prime: Stream

Google Play: Rent & Buy

YouTube: Rent & Buy

Who to follow:

Official Twitter: @YouWereNeverMov

Jonathan Ames:


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