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Review: Joaquin Phoenix in "You Were Never Really Here"

by Seán McGovern

As the credits begin to roll on Lynne Ramsey's visceral and intense film, I felt an odd feeling of relief that Joaquin Phoenix did not win an Oscar for playing Johnny Cash. In the years since, Phoenix has eschewed the mainstream and become a full-blown movie-star weirdo. His raw performance in You Were Never Really Here isn't just told his line-readings but also his back muscles, feet, scars and posture. A role for the classical leading man, this is not.

Ramsey's first film since 2011 is a singular assault. It's quite possible that you hated We Need to Talk About Kevin, which took the parental horrors of Lionel Shriver's novel and intellectualised them at a remove. But Ramsey has a knack for distance, creating a particular style of alienation that works perfectly for the story of a traumatized hired-gun...

Phoenix is Joe, a fairly silent hitman who specialises in rescuing trafficked young girls. His current client is a New York Senator up for re-election, distraught at the disappearance of his daughter Nina but determined to keep a potentially horrendous story out of the news. After all: the optics.

You Were Never Here has the setup of a slick thriller but it's made with an auteur's eye. The conventional hired gun plot is but one aspect. This film is an extreme close up of a life built by violence, where mercilessness is the day job. The characters are repeatedly despicable, and why should we expect them to be anything else?

In the seven years since We Need to Talk About Kevin, Ramsey has found room for some parental warmth. Character actress Judith Roberts is the film's heart as Joe's mother, frail and goofy, who brings out the tenderness in her son which appears to exist beneath the surface. This and the brilliant use of Charlene's "Never Been to Me," might mean that Ramsey has softened... while our hero shoots, stabs and bludgeons his way into our hearts.

The ordinary viewer isn't going to just stumble upon You Were Never Really Here. It's not what you'd call an enjoyable film. It's nihilistic, bleak, cruel and disgusting. It might be a commentary on the cycles of abuse. Or it might be nothing more than an assault by Ramsey's own visual aesthetic. Either way, it lingers.

Oscar chances: At this point in his career, he doesn't need it and Lynne Ramsey doesn't either. Still... it would be nice.

Overall: This is difficult filmmaking. You have to choose to see it. I think you should. B+

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Reader Comments (8)

After a "Her" snub... I would love to see Phoenix getting nominated once more. He has "You Were Never Really Here" and "Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot" as potential Best Actor vehicles.... Personally, I loved him in Ramsey's.... Please, make it happen xD

April 6, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterEd

Thanks for the review. I will be watching this on Saturday at the Angelika when Lynne Ramsay makes an appearance.

FWIW, I saw Claire's Camera last night. It was a fun romp and I was not prepared for a lot of awkward chuckles that emanated not only from me but also my co-audience members. I thought the ending was beautifully captured -- no words, no explanations, just something you had to see unfold. One guy in the audience remarked rather loudly that "that was a WTF ending". He was not a fan of the film but his remarks had audience members talking to each other about what they think the narrative meant. Maybe that guy should see Right Now, Wrong Then first to appreciate the offbeat humor of Hong Sang-Soo.

April 6, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterOwl

Not exactly a ringing endorsement, is it? Oh well.

No mention of Phoenix's Cannes Best Actor win? Oscar dark-horse contender?

April 6, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterPaulie

I don't have anything to say about this (I love Ratcatcher and Morvern callar, I HATE We Need to talk About Kevin), but I've read Owl's post and it made me swoon over Isabelle Huppert in Claire's Camera one more time. OMG I love that woman, and Hong Sangsoo always films her at her loveliest.

April 6, 2018 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

I do want to see this. I'm a big fan of Lynne Ramsay and I'm glad I didn't have to wait another 9 years for another film from her.

April 6, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterthevoid99

I tink Phoenix might still hav a shot at a nom if he gets some critics luv.

He has like 3 or 4 movies out this yr?? YWNRH, Mary Magdalene, Dun Worry, He Won't Get Far on Feet, n The Sisters Brothers

He might b a Triple/Quadruple Threat!

April 6, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterClaran

Joaquin should have won for The Master. Period. His performance was better than that Overrated Lincoln. Justify this error, Academy. Give him an Oscar next year.

April 7, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterSTFU

I think DDL did deserve his three wins. Phoenix wasn't even the best actor in his movie - that was PSH.

April 7, 2018 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

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