Review: You Were Never Really Here (2018)


Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here is the work of an artist who seems to have liked the ending of Taxi Driver but thought that its mixture of queasy violence and hallucinatory storytelling ought to be extended to feature length. As such, You Were Never Really Here is the latest in a long line of art films that attempt to “elevate” genre picture conceits while robbing the concepts of all entertainment, clarity, and psychological insight. The film was adored at Cannes in 2017—star Joaquin Phoenix won Best Actor and Ramsay won Best Screenplay—and has been critically lauded, but it’s an insufferable work of pretension that takes a slam-dunk proposition—Joaquin Phoenix rescues a little girl from pedophiles and murders scumbags with a hammer—and transforms it into an aggravating 95-minute wallow through impressionistic editing and grisly violence.

Like Ramsay’s previous film, We Need to Talk About Kevin (which I also hated), You Were Never Really Here stretches out a modicum of plot to interminable length. Although it only runs 95 minutes, including credits, it feels at least twice that length as Ramsay stretches out each action to a tortoise’s pace. What conventional plot there is follows Phoenix’s Joe, who does contract work that requires him to murder men with a hammer and communicate via pay phones. He’s a war vet and takes care of his ailing mother (Judith Roberts) when he’s not working. He’s also suffering from PTSD, both from abuse suffered as a child and trauma experienced in Iraq or Afghanistan. He gets a job to save the daughter (Ekaterina Samsonov) of a New York state senator (Alex Manette) from a pedophile ring and ends up getting in over his head when the senator dies after he saves the girl.

As I said, the plot is essentially the same as Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, except Joe is a hired man here and not simply a taxi driver with delusions of violent heroism. Also, like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, Joe is a war vet. However, Ramsay does what Scorsese and Schrader never do, using Joe’s PTSD as an excuse for his violent impulses and delusions of heroism. Scorsese and Schrader are not artists who reduce characters to less-than-complex beings, but Ramsay isn’t interested in characters as human beings. To her, they’re symbols of malaise or anger or innocence or the lechery of modern man, or some other artistic bullshit that excuses her from writing any compelling motivation or psychological realism into her creations. 

Like with We Need to Talk About Kevin, the characters in You Were Never Really Here are caricatures who never change over the course of the film. Joaquin Phoenix, an immensely talented actor, tries his best to add soulful desperation to Joe, but he’s saddled with playing hangdog blues throughout most of the film. We see Joe attempt or fantasize about suicide throughout the film, in a bid for added edge, and Phoenix’s shocking physique—he added on considerable fat and muscle for the role—seems mere compensation for how underwritten Joe is. Ekaterina Samsonov, who plays Nina, the girl he rescues, fares even worse as Nina is no more than a symbol of innocence that Joe can latch onto: a chance for salvation from the horrors of the world.

It’s not the actors' fault that You Were Never Really Here is insufferable. That fault falls squarely on the director, Ramsay, who stretches out around 20 minutes of plot into an interminable affair and pulls out all stylistic stops in attempting to show she’s a great artist. The visual style is the sort of digital HD shaky cam that’s so chic nowadays: most shots are extreme close-ups of faces or hazy abstract images that take advantage of an extremely narrow range of focus to create plays of light across the screen. In Good Time, the Safdie Brothers proved that such a style can be used to incredible effect if it’s accompanied by a propulsive narrative and energetic acting, but everything on screen in You Were Never Really Here is lethargic. For a film about life and death, about great evils and great pain, everything is curiously muted.

As well, there are few shots that Ramsay doesn’t needlessly complicate visually. Her style of framing seems to be the logical extension of what my friend Adam Slusar and I call the “Gus Van Sant Method of Filmmaking:” why frame a simple two-shot when you can shoot a conversation through a glass vase on a shelf, forcing visual abstractions on a scene that doesn’t warrant them?

More irritating than Ramsay’s visual style is her overly-repetitive editing rhythms. Although the cumulative effect of her filmmaking is boredom, Ramsay is hyperactive in her editing. She never lets scenes breath, instead cutting to esoteric shots of streets or objects in the room or flashing back to Joe’s traumatic past. There’s only one scene where Ramsay’s editing pays any dividends. 

When Joe first goes to rescue Nina and kills the various men he finds within the underage brothel, Ramsay shows the carnage through the lens of the various security cameras set up throughout the building. The black and white images recall the found-footage of films like Paranormal Activity and lend the scene a horror quality, while also obscuring some of the grisly violence taking place in the scene. As well, Ramsay cuts between the various feeds to a regular rhythm, which ends up confusing the geography of the building and making Joe seem like some supernatural avenger unrestricted by time and space. It’s an effective use of editing and visual style and the one sequence in the film where Ramsay’s overly stylistic approach doesn’t smother the film to death.

And then she does essentially the same thing again during the climax, ruining the novelty of this approach. Late in the film as Joe goes to save Nina a second time, heading through a gorgeous mansion, Ramsay repeats the editing rhythm of the brothel scene, cutting between shots of Joe exploring the mansion, although foregoing the security camera vantage points. There’s no reason to return to this approach aside from making some vague point about Joe’s life repeating in cycles of violence. As well, by returning to this particular stylistic well, Ramsay neuters the power of the earlier scene. It demonstrates Ramsay’s repetitive approach to her style and how she would rather bludgeon the viewer with stylistic tics than pick and choose key moments to emphasize and other moments to play without artistic embellishment.

Perhaps the repetition and stylistic tics and unnatural rhythm are all a part of Ramsay’s masterplan. Perhaps she intends to bore the viewer to death and lean into the repulsive elements of her film in an effort to impart some lesson to the audience. But whatever lesson the film is conveying is banal. There are no new reflections on trauma and the cycles of violence in this film. There is no great insight into the devastated mind of solitary men or the predatory nature of modern America. There is nothing new here, not even in the stylistic indulgences of the director.

Commercially-minded genre pictures like James Mangold’s Logan offer more psychological insight than this insufferable romp, while also providing the viewer with genuine entertainment. That You Were Never Really Here is critically adored doesn’t surprise me; critics love to praise films that are superficially artistic and confound conventions. What does surprise me is how Ramsay could make a film starring Joaquin Phoenix as a hammer-wielding contract killer so insufferably boring.

I’d rather take a hammer to the head than watch it again.

3 out of 10

You Were Never Really Here (2018, USA)

Directed by Lynne Ramsay; written by Lynne Ramsay, based on the novel by Jonathan Ames; starring Joaquin Phoenix, Ekaterina Samsonov, Alex Manette, John Doman, Judith Roberts, Alessandro Nivola, Frank Pando.