"You Were Never Really Here" is as haunting as it is brutal
When Taken hit theaters, it received praise for its stripped-down take on an action film. That shit’s a rental car compared to the sleek thrill ride delivered by Lynne Ramsay. You Were Never Really Here handles more like a motorcycle than a Mustang, and your mileage may vary as a result. It’s an editor’s dream project, as the end result feels skeletal, but never hollow; this sucker still has all the guts inside.
And hoo-boy do we get some blood and guts. It never feels excessive — this isn’t quite John Wick and it never feels terribly comparable, either. While Wick fits neatly into the revenge-thriller genre, YWNRH parallels more tightly to another great 2017 film: Good Time. Both take place (mostly) over one night and both capture the same sense of a purposeful man who is truly lost.
Where those films separate is the leading men. Joaquin Phoenix plays an absolute force of nature. He’s a violent ghost, haunted by his past that can’t be stopped en route to his ultimate goal. It’s ultimately unclear why he’s the way he is, though context clues are scattered throughout the film. Ultimately, it’s more haunting to try to piece together the puzzle while catching your breath.
Granted, there’s not much time to breathe. It’s not that the film feels rushed, though perhaps it should given how much Ramsay packs into a fewer than 90 minutes, but on more than one occasion I found myself holding my breath. As a hulking Phoenix (words I never thought I’d type) lumbers through homes, hotels and apartments with a fucking hammer beating on thugs there’s a poetry to it — a compassion to it.
Beneath the blood and the scar tissue of Joe is a wounded man, revealed through flashbacks that come suddenly (and briefly). These feel as overwhelming to Joe as they do to the audience. They’re memories he only wishes he could suppress as he collects money to hunt down and rescue little girls from horrific situations. If it’s a modern day Taxi Driver, it’s… well, you know the cliche. Martin Scorsese didn’t direct this shit.
Ramsay delivers that compassion in surprising ways. After one of the film’s most brutal scenes comes one of its most tender, which I won’t spoil, but you’ll know when you see. It’s not all the big strong man cares about the kids. That’s a strength. Enough time is taken to show what makes Joe tick before the bomb goes off to make the proceedings matter, and what comes next is so gripping you’ll be dying to know more.