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You Were Never Really Here

Senator Votto: McCleary said that you were brutal.
Joe: … I can be.

From the very first trailer, this looked like my kind of movie. Having watched it twice, I can say that I was even more right in thinking so than I originally believed.

You Were Never Really Here gets points right away for having both one of the finest actors working today, Joaquin Phoenix, in the lead role and an enthralling filmmaker, Lynne Ramsay, at the helm.

Based on the novella by Jonathan Ames, the story is centered around Joe. Joe is what some might call a vigilante, but gun for hire would probably be more accurate. He is a deeply disturbed but highly proficient man, both of which make him ideal for what he does. One might initially assume he is some sort of assassin or enforcer, but it becomes quite apparent that his expertise primarily lies in one field: Joe rescues children who have been sold into sexual slavery.

Despite being a rigidly cautious individual, Joe finds himself in an especially perilous situation when he is contracted to save the daughter of a New York senator from sex traffickers.

The initial promos for this film led me to believe it would be something in the vein of Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive, another darkly stylish indie thriller. While there are similarities, particularly in the way it also draws inspiration from Taxi Driver, You Were Never Really Here is much more introspective movie.

Joe stands somewhere in between the anti-heroes of those two films. While he is stoic, professional and occasionally vicious, he is not an enigma or a symbol like the Driver. And though he is also an awkward and deranged loner, his story is not nearly as in-depth a character study as Travis Bickle’s was.

He’s a man of few words, yet the movie is consumed by his headspace. How he perceives his present and recalls his past. It’s to the point that the plot begins to feel almost secondary to the mental torment of the protagonist. His memories act as pieces to a jigsaw puzzle, providing some hint as to how a man becomes someone like this.

As a result, we’re more invested in the psychology that compels Joe to exorcise his demons by saving children and violently beating their abusers with a ball-peen hammer than we are the action itself.

The way Lynne Ramsay handles this material with her unique style that weaves memories and visions together with stark reality is incredibly captivating; she creates some truly haunting and vivid imagery. As is the way Phoenix holds our attention through minimal dialogue, meticulous physicality and striking instances of emotion.

Additionally, as grim as the subject matter is, this is not a movie that goes out of its way to fetishize violence for aesthetic purposes. It is more concerned with illustrating the lasting effect that violence and trauma has on people, the way it shapes their lives.

You Were Never Really Here might be one of my favorite movies of the last ten years. Some may be turned off by its subdued action, its unconventional plot, or its short runtime, but those things only raised my respect for it. It’s a film that manages to say a lot while saying very little, and is surprisingly more nuanced than many others of its kind.


* The film’s score is by Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead, who also scored There Will Be Blood. He certainly knows how to set the mood, whether it's emphasizing chaos and horror or peace and self-reflection.

* While Joaquin Phoenix is definitely the star here, other standouts include Ekaterina Samsonov as Nina, the Senator’s daughter who acts as a kindred spirit to Joe, and Judith Roberts as Joe’s mother, who shares the scars left over from his dark past.

* I’m not sure what the title refers to specifically. It seems to be lyrics to a song that plays near the beginning of the film, but it might also allude to the fact that Joe’s traumatic recollections of his past seem to be bleeding over into his present. At times, we’re not sure if what he’s seeing is actually there.

It’s a fast, tight, unnerving and hypnotic psychological thriller. One that certainly leaves a mark. Five out of five ball-peen hammers.


  1. I haven't seen this movie, but it sounds fascinating.

  2. Shoutout to the incredible sound design of this film. Lynne Ramsay and the sound department did a fantastic job of transporting you into and out of the world as necessary. So few filmmakers nowadays understand how to use sound design effectively, merely doing it acceptably enough that it goes unnoticed. Ramsay here makes it a part of her craft, and I can't praise it enough. Love this movie.


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