You Were Never Really Here

Posted: March 17, 2018 in Film reviews

Directed by Lynne Ramsay. Starring Joaquin Phoenix.

methode_times_prod_web_bin_ca63efc0-22d8-11e8-8ccc-a83211a65142Joe (Phoenix) is a contract killer with a very particular specialism. He rescues children from sexual exploitation and, if required (and it usually is), exacts a brutal and bloody revenge on those responsible for the child’s torment. He’s no clean-cut hero however. He’s a broken man suffering from PTSD, not only from his experiences in the Gulf War, but also from his own childhood trauma.

After completing a job in Cincinnati he returns home to New York and his aged mother (Judith Roberts). He has little time to relax however, because all to soon he’s made aware of another job. Senator Albert Votto’s teenage daughter Nina (An eerie Ekaterina Samsonov) has disappeared, but the Senator has learned that she’s being held in a brothel catering to powerful men with a desire for underage girls.

Taking on the job Joe prepares himself for the task, purchasing his weapon of choice, a hammer, but there’s more going on than he thinks. Can he rescue Nina or will he fall victim to a vile conspiracy?


In some ways You Were Never Really Here is a very familiar kind of film, and yet in others it really isn’t that familiar at all. It has more than a passing resemblance to Taxi Driver, and in it’s burley, bearded, broken protagonist endeavouring to protect a younger female character it echoes more recent films such as Logan and Mel Gibson’s Blood Father.

What is different is Ramsey’s approach to the subject matter. This isn’t always an easy film to watch, but that’s not in the way you might imagine. Yes, it deals with a harrowing subject, and yes it’s violent, but when I say it isn’t an easy watch, in part this is because Ramsey doesn’t give you what you expect, subverting all your expectations of what a film like this should be like.

Take the violence, and yes some of it is very gruesome, yet Ramsey rarely shows it head on, instead we view it obliquely; sometimes via CCTV footage, sometimes its seen only in reflection, and sometimes it occurs off screen altogether. For the viewer this lends the film an odd lack of catharsis, because we’re conditioned to want to see the hero mete out justice to the vile villains. Which doesn’t mean that justice isn’t meted out, just not in the way you might imagine, and on occasion the viewer’s frustration might mirror Joe’s, and that’s uncomfortable because it suggests we want to see the violence, and what does that say about us?


“What’s in this body sized bag? Er…would you believe Koi Carp?”

Though there are other characters, really this is a one man show, and Phoenix is mesmerizingly good. A broken bear of a man, Joe is at once painfully human, and at others frighteningly inhuman. Witness him tenderly sing along with his mother, or gently comfort Nina, whilst at others he dispenses violence as casually as one might wave hello to a vague acquaintance spotted across the street. His brooding presence is supplemented by an intense thousand-yard stare. If you saw Joe on the tube you’d probably want to sit as far away from him as possible, and yet despite the similarity to Taxi Driver, Joe is no Travis Bickle, he’s infinitely more noble.

In showing us the broken nature of a man suffering from PTSD Ramsey’s direction is all about chaos, from fragmented imagery to an incredibly discordant soundtrack, and she provides no glib answers, leaving it up to us to piece together the precise nature of the traumas that have shattered Joes psyche. There are several moments of symbolic suicide for Joe, as if she’s showing us a man who’s constantly being reborn yet never seems to get the redemption he probably deserves.

A short sharp hammer blow to the head of a film, but one that Ramsey isn’t afraid to slow down at times, You Were Never Really Here is an intriguing entry into the genre, and one that will probably reward repeat viewings, but if Joaquin Phoenix ever asks if you’d like to go to B&Q, I’d pass if I were you!


Joe liked his knife, but he really wanted a hammer.

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