Sundance Review: YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE Is Simply Outstanding

Art and action converge in Lynne Ramsay’s haunting character study.

I love a big, dumb action film, but it’s also so exciting when directors of artistic renowned lend the genre their talents, infusing familiar tropes with new angles and perspectives that help remind us what the genre is capable of. Such is the case with the phenomenal You Were Never Really Here, the latest endeavor from We Need to Talk About Kevin director Lynne Ramsay. 

Based on Jonathan Ames’ novella, the film focuses on Joaquin Phoenix’s Joe. Ramsay’s script is almost completely devoid of expository details, but Joe appears to be a suicidal ex-military man who now rescues people (violently, with a ball-peen hammer) from whoever was dumb enough to abduct them. There could be more to his job description, but that’s the extent of what we witness him do here. Joe has a clear death wish, but he is good at his job. He also loves and cares for his elderly mother. We get the sense that despite the violence inherent to his nature, there is a soft soul within him as well.

In typical genre fashion (yet through decidedly atypical execution), Joe finds his life turned upside down when he’s hired to save a senator’s daughter from sexual slavery and the job goes south. There is a larger conspiracy involved, and a lot of people get hammered as Joe figures his way through it.

Phoenix is perfect as Joe, ably conveying both sides of this character even when questioning a captive or helping a victim pass on. Bearded and burly, Phoenix leans forward with his arms slightly out and curled, making him look like some kind of animal, but always with a pained vulnerability on his face.

Through the story, Ramsay flashes back to quick-cut memories from three defining events in Joe’s life. Movies have taught us to expect these flashes to later get revealed in full, but Ramsay denies us that. Instead, we are encouraged to take these fragments, examine their implications, and apply them to Joe’s narrative ourselves, an intellectually satisfying duty which keeps You Were Never Really Here fresh on the mind far longer than most films. Of everything I saw at Sundance, this is the film I want to rewatch most.

With such great direction, an intriguing central performance, and Jonny Greenwood’s evocative score, You Were Never Really Here is a gem for action fans and arty connoisseurs alike. We’re all very lucky it’s really here.