Film is no doubt a visual medium where the filmmakers are supposed to tell the story in the most logical visual way possible. However, dialogue and audio in film were created for a reason. They allow our characters to more naturally interact with each other and divulge information to the audience. But too much dialogue can also be a detriment and drag your story down, killing that natural feeling. Depending on your story, there’s always a balance to be found, but when that perfect balance is achieved, you can get something beautiful.

You Were Never Really Here follows Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), a reclusive, disheveled war veteran who doesn’t do much but wander around the streets of New York and take care of his mother. Oh, he’s also a hired gun (or hammer, in his case) who’s employed to find and rescue young girls being trafficked through a prostitution ring. When he’s hired by a state senator to track down his daughter, Joe finds himself spiraling down through a world of bloody deceit, betrayal, and revelations.

You know what’s all too uncommon nowadays? Filmmakers who understand what story they’re telling, tell it, and then get out and go. Writer-director Lynne Ramsay gets that, with the film clocking in at a lean 89 minutes, including credits. That doesn’t mean the story lacks substance, as it’s a harrowing character study about a broken man trying to survive in this brutal world. The film is entirely focused on Joe, so you’ll get a lot of a scenes of a disheveled Joaquin Phoenix walking around, but what a performance of him walking around and staring off silently it is. Phoenix is magnificent, saying everything you need to know about his character from just his body language and facial expressions. When he’s with his mother, you can feel the frustration, but love he has for her. When he’s with the people giving him jobs, he’s stern and serious. When he’s rescuing a girl, he’s sweet and benevolent. When he does speak, he does so in such a broken way that you understand why he’s so silent. It’s a performance like this that proves why Phoenix is one of the finest actors of his generation. 

As Joe’s mission gets more and more difficult, it triggers a lot of traumatic past experiences that made him the man he is now. These flashbacks are just little glimpses into his past, but they’re filled with haunting imagery and gives us a whole lot of information with very little. People often complain about how flashbacks hamper a film and it’s a lazy way to build character, but the way they’re utilized really tie the story and character together. Since the story is all about Joe, there’s virtually no fat to be found here. Every character he interacts with, major or minor, plays a role in developing the story. Even better, single scene characters with hardly any dialogue feel fully fleshed out. The quick pace and lack of direct exposition does make some scenes feel a little too vague about what they’re going for, though. Aside from an incredibly obvious jump cut that bothered me the whole runtime, the editing is fluid and brilliantly paints us a picture of Joe’s fractured mindset.

It almost feels like a silent film at times, with lengthy stretches with minimal dialogue and a heavy emphasis on the dreamlike visuals and musical score. The score by Johnny Greenwood catchy, but also incredibly atmospheric, changing genres to suit the ever changing mood of Joe’s character. Heavy bass driven synth scores accompany him while he’s on the hunt, and more droning, high pitches synth effects to represent when his outcome looks grim. It’s an eclectic score, but feels perfectly appropriate for every scene. Even serene songs like Angel Baby perfectly set the scene, the calm music starkly contrasting the grainy surveillance footage of Joe hammering people to death. A lot of this violence is kept off screen, us only receiving only slight suggestions of what we’re seeing. While we don’t see a lot of it, all of the violence is incredibly hard hitting. You don’t need blood and gore to horrify you when the subject matter is already doing the trick. 

When you hear the premise of a man going around and bashing pedophile’s brains in with a hammer, you wouldn’t expect it to be one of the most intense cinematic character studies in recent memory. Well, You Were Never Really Here isn’t just about kiddie diddlers getting their just desserts. It’s about one broken man who was dealt an awful hand in life, trying to find any sort of meaning and purpose he can. It’s just that that purpose and meaning comes in the form of rescuing girls from pedophiles and bashing their brains in with a hammer. While it’s cathartic to watch at first, it’s haunting when you realize what kind of life has driven Joe to these actions. I’m not much of a reader, but after watching, I immediately sought out the novel this film was based off. The story and character are just that compelling.


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