Based on Jonathan Ames‘ 2013 novel, You Were Never Really Here stars Joaquin Phoenix as an underworld contract employee who rescues trafficked girls. Joe (Phoenix) is a traumatized American war veteran whose profession validates him while at the same time helping to traumatizes him further. When a job that seems simple enough spins out of control, Joe is pushed beyond his limits as he pieces together who is responsible for the ensuing carnage.
It takes a good deal of time before the audience learns what is going on in this movie. I started to walk out after checking my phone at 20 minutes, 30 minutes, 40 minutes in… in anticipation that it wasn’t going to get much better. But, I hung in there and was pleasantly surprised at times. I am glad I finished it by the end.
The editing, camera work, cinematography, make up, lighting and set design, are all very well done. Technically, You Were Never Really There is an interesting watch with a lot of small details that command attention. The music (by Johnny Greenwood) provides an almost too perfectly eerie backdrop to the subject matter and action. Due to Greenwood’s music, things get “horror movie” creepy at times, providing an almost palpable and nearly physically repulsive intensity to the plot. You may never look at some seemingly innocent standards the same again.
Phoenix, as usual, gives an intense and outstanding performance as this traumatized vet living a double life as a “bad guy” at work and “good guy” – dare I say, a great guy, or. rather, guy being the best he can – at home. Joe vacillates between brutality and tenderness as easily as a light switch can be flicked on and off. And he is bad-ass with it! You feel for him, you root for him, you want him to win at all cost, in spite of any moral issues that may exist, and there are many. Joe is the consummate anti-hero. I had a semi-difficult time finding out the name of the young lady who starred as the child in need of rescue who is at the core of the plot. I found it, but will not publish it because the plot deals with trafficking and pedophilia, so I will assume this is an effort to somehow protect her identity. The identities of many of the other young girls featured in this film are published without pictures. Sadly, there are a lot of sick people in the world, so this is understandable and commendable. The young star did excellent work as this traumatized child and I look forward to seeing her future projects. I cannot even imagine the psychological effects of playing such a role, even though I’m sure You Were Never Really Here was shot and edited in a way to shield her from much, if not all, of the featured violence and the extreme gravity of the subject matter.
You Were Never Really Here, while at times suspenseful and somewhat well paced, comes across as a muddled, disjointed piece. It uses many flashbacks to explain too much of the present. The flashbacks interrupt the pace of the film too often and are not fully explained, leaving the audience to put together just a bit too much of the puzzle of Joe and his current issues, which include hyper suicidal ideation and fixation, PTSD, social emotional issues and how they play into the personal and professional relationships in his current life, what is going on and who is responsible, etc. This is both the beauty and the flaw in You Were Never Really Here.
There is too little character development of the major players in this job-gone-wrong to satisfy. I enjoy a movie that has moving parts that somehow come together at the end and this is a movie that forces you to think, but the convoluted story line isn’t cohesive enough for the audience to satisfactorily arrive to the climax. (Full disclosure, which I always give – I’ve not read the book, so perhaps the format of the film was meant to mimic the format of the book, similarly to The Girl on a Train, which was the failing of that film. (Here’s my review). You Were Never Really Here opens strong, then takes far too long to get to the point of it all. I’m not sure how much of this can be attributed to direction or screenplay writing, both done by Lynn Ramsey. So either way, the onus falls on Ramsey. The result is a deflated “aha” moment that could have and should have had much greater impact. The moments of revelation feel weak and full of missed opportunity.
You Were Never Really Here earned 7.5 out of 10 bloops. The acting, score and suspense put it over the top. Phoenix and his co-stars (honorable mention to Judith Roberts) give fantastic performances in a movie that simply over-directed and too , muddled to come together cohesively. It is otherwise technically beautiful and worth a watch.
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1 = worst ever, avoid at all cost
2 = very bad, forget about it!
3 = poor movie, not recommended
4 = not good, even for free – NO!
5 = so-so, worth it if you don’t have to pay
6 = not bad, could have been better
7 = good movie, worth seeing
8 = great movie, don’t miss it!
9 = excellent movie, a must see!
10 = a masterpiece, go see it now!
What I’m seeing/reviewing next…
A Quiet Place
Ready Player One
A Wrinkle in Time
The Florida Project
Den of Thieves
All the Money in the World
The Greatest Showman
The Disaster Artist
Call Me By Your Name
Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri
The Shape of Water
The Man Who Invented Christmas
Victoria and Abdul
Kingsman: The Golden Circle
The Big Sick
All Eyez on Me
It Comes at Night
The Wedding Plan
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword
Kong: Skull Island
The Girl with All the Gifts
A Cure for Wellness
Hell or High Water
La La Land
Manchester by the Sea
I Am Not Your Negro