You Were Never Really Here (2018) (Review)

The first major disappointment of 2018 is here folks. I really, really wanted to love You Were Never Really Here, Lynne Ramsay's latest acclaimed effort, which first began making waves last year upon its Cannes debut, becoming the winner of two of the festival's awards -- Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Actor. It crept up my anticipation list as the release grew nearer; and now, almost a year later, the end product has thoroughly underwhelmed.

Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), a war veteran and former FBI agent suffering from PTSD, now works as a hitman while nursing both his ageing mother and a painkiller addiction of his own. He is set jobs across the country for powerful men, with his next major operation to rescue a politician's young daughter from a brothel in Manhattan; when it goes sideways, everyone he's ever known becomes a target.

Based on Jonathan Ames' novella of the same name, You Were Never Really Here is horribly arrogant filmmaking. While both Ramsay and Phoenix have demonstrated their talent time and time again, it does not give them the right to turn in a film as conceited and scattershot as this, one that teeters on the edge of becoming a full-blown parody at times. It intermittently harnesses its potential, most evidently during the terrific closing moments -- but never to the degree where you feel satisfied by what you've just seen. In fact, I felt really frustrated throughout, frequently shaking my head in annoyance as I watched one of my most anticipated films of the year become one of my least favourites thus far.

Purely on an aesthetic level, Ramsay succeeds as a director; she delivers a slice of fine arthouse cinema with enough flair to keep you engaged visually. It's a visceral, stark and brutal piece, boasting some robust action sequence but even they begin to feel repetitive -- there's at least two instances of Phoenix entering a house, bloodying up everybody in sight while music plays sporadically to make it feel bold and edgy. Ramsay prevents the entire piece from becoming a write off, and from the beautiful neon lighting (enhanced by Thomas Townend's cinematography) to the pulpy, well-choreographed action set pieces, she does an admirable job fighting an empty and derivative screenplay.

For a character study, You Were Never Really Here is very bare bones, bordering on empty. The characters are flat and unmemorable and even Joe, the lead, is so poorly-defined that the writers provide him with multiple examples of trauma as if to really sell his struggle. It's incredible forced and manipulative. Like every hitman film you've seen before but with a quirky arthouse edge and a visionary director at the helm whose talent is stifled, there's little sense or coherence holding You Were Never Really Here together causing it to crumble under its own pretentiousness.

Hacked by Joe Bini in the editing room, the film is so relentlessly cut, slashed and chopped that it scatters the narrative beyond recognition; it means to symbolise Joe's PTSD controlling him at irregular intervals but it's more akin to shoddy, trigger-happy workmanship. He assembles and reassembles so heavy-handedly, as if he forgot to add something earlier on, and it becomes so purposely evasive that it loses focus of the narrative and any beyond-surface-level meaning.

Jonny Greenwood, who crafted one of my all-time favourite soundtracks with his recent Oscar-nominated work on Phantom Thread, delivers a decent enough score here in isolation to the film but the sound mixers botch it up in operation. At deafening volumes, his sonic creation overpowers everything else, diluting every drop of tension and hindering any momentum developed, with it incorporated at a far-too brash and discordant level; rather than working in conjunction with the piece, it impedes it and amplifies the film's accidental parodistic nature.

Like Ramsay, Joaquin Phoenix (responsible for one of my all-time favourite performances in Spike Jonze's Her) attempts to elevate the empty film by bringing a gravitas to the role of Joe - but it all falls apart when you realise that there is little to truly define him. For a film that frames itself as a character study dressed as a psychological thriller, there's little of any substance - that's right, my friend style over substance comes into play here - and prevents the committed Phoenix from fully showcasing his skill. Even more frustrating is how poorly its supporting characters - particularly its young, female victim - are presented, as minor tools used only to emphasise Joe's inner turmoil. No character comes into their own and it's yet another example of the screenplay failing to evolve elements into something satisfying.

My reaction to You Were Never Really Here is how I imagine a lot of people reacted to Darren Aronofsky and Jennifer Lawrence's mother! last year; it's ambitious filmmaking that should certainly be admired for its boldness but I never want to see it again. Visually excellent and well-performed but narratively incompetent and bordering on dull, You Were Never Really Here was lost on me and I almost wish I was never really there to experience it at all.


Summary: A deafening, misused soundtrack and relentless editing that scatters an already-empty narrative beyond recognition does not a psychological thriller make, and despite the best efforts of Lynne Ramsay and Joaquin Phoenix, You Were Never Really Here made me wish I was never really there to experience it.