film You Were Never Re­ally Here | Freaks and Geeks: The Doc­u­men­tary


Di­rected by Lynne Ram­say

“I don’t know what the fuck’s go­ing on.” Joaquin Phoenix’s char­ac­ter says this part­way through You Were Never Re­ally Here, but it’s an un­der­stand­able re­ac­tion through­out. The Lynne Ram­say-di­rected adap­ta­tion of Jonathan Ames’ 2013 novel is heavy on both style and sub­stance, but keeps the lat­ter heav­ily ob­scured with daz­zling dis­plays of the for­mer. It doles out in­for­ma­tion in a slow but steady drip, enough to keep you aware of some of the con­text, but never enough to spell it all out. It’s dizzy­ing, hor­ri­fy­ing and ut­terly com­pelling.

You Were Never Re­ally Here reads like an in­stant clas­sic. It has a dis­tinc­tive vis­ual style, a com­pelling story, bril­liant per­for­mances and, of course, a sig­na­ture song (“An­gel Baby” by Rosie and the Orig­i­nals). Joaquin Phoenix stars as Joe, a com­bat vet­eran and for­mer FBI agent who spends his time res­cu­ing traf­ficked girls and tak­ing care of his el­derly mother. Phoenix de­liv­ers a stun­ning per­for­mance as a mer­ce­nary with both a big heart and hair-trig­ger tem­per, and del­i­cately weaves both sides of the char­ac­ter to­gether in a per­for­mance that stands among his best.

Ram­say, not con­tent to let her ex­cel­lent screen­play do all the work, com­mands the screen with vis­ual style. She hides the film’s gori­est mo­ments just out of frame, or through a ceil­ing mir­ror, or via sur­veil­lance footage; in­stead of bog­ging the film down with gra­tu­itous vi­o­lence, it keeps the fo­cus on the sus­pense. There’s no sadis­tic pay­off, which makes the vi­o­lence feel im­por­tant and de­void of mas­cu­line blood­lust. Not that the film isn’t visu­ally in­dul­gent; Joe’s strug­gle with PTSD is show­cased in strik­ing, haunt­ing vi­su­als, with an end­less stream of iconic im­ages and se­quences pep­pered through­out the film. Told from Joe’s per­spec­tive, the film takes a cu­ra­to­rial tone in terms of what is im­por­tant to Joe: Not the vi­o­lence and es­pi­onage, but the feel­ings, the emo­tional im­pact, the de­sire to take care of peo­ple. Joe is a com­plex char­ac­ter whose nu­ances are ex­pertly ex­plored both by Phoenix and Ram­say her­self, whose strong di­rec­to­rial hand makes ev­ery facet of Joe’s thought process come through, even when the con­text doesn’t.

Ram­say doesn’t let any of film’s con­ven­tions come through eas­ily — even Jonny Green­wood’s score is of­ten jammed in with diegetic sound, mak­ing it hard to dis­cern his Four Tetlite jux­ta­po­si­tion be­tween orches­tral strings and jar­ring elec­tron­ics — but she makes the ef­fort worth it. You Were Never Re­ally Here takes a dif­fi­cult ap­proach to a chal­leng­ing story, but Ram­say’s strong vi­sion has led to one of the year’s best films. (Ama­zon Stu­dios)


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