MIFF Review: You Were Never Really Here (USA, 2018) is a gripping psychological thriller led by a captivating Joaquin Phoenix

You Were Never Really Here is a gripping psychological thriller, and a dark and disturbing character study with Joaquin Phoenix putting in a thrilling lead performance.

The film follows Joe (Phoenix), a veteran living with PTSD, who spends his time finding and rescuing missing girls. On this job, however, he stumbles into a larger conspiracy that pushes him right to the edge. Writer/Director Lynne Ramsay has crafted and told this story in a brilliant way, that is unique to her style, and really sets this film aside from other somewhat similar stories. Her choice of focus in each scene and the scope of the story she is depicting is what makes this You Were Never Really Here so gripping and intense all the way through.

At its core this film is a deep character study, focusing entirely on Joe, you are seeing every event from within his current mindset, which for a number of reasons isn’t stable. Joe is unstable, violent, and unpredictable, with a lot of these traits bought out through the booming score and rather confronting camera-work and imagery. What is brilliant about the way this is all handled is that Lynne Ramsay never loses sight of her focus; the story and the camera is always centred on Joe, and as tempting as it may be to cut to the action, she keeps your eye locked onto Joe. She knows when to show the brutality and the violence, and exactly when not to. So whilst there are a tonne of violent events in there you don’t actually see all that many of them. Ramsay has executed a very less-is-more approach to telling this story and it works amazingly well. Sometimes, seeing the aftermath of a horrific event is more intriguing and captivating than seeing it happen on-screen. It lets you fill in the gaps, enticing a certain level of audience engagement and interaction.

Joe is a character that wouldn’t work if it wasn’t for the captivating performance from Phoenix, who is mesmerising through the entire film. You Were Never Really Here doesn’t feature a lot in the way of dialogue, with some lengthy scenes containing barely a spoken word. This leaves Phoenix to convey the pain, torture, and conflict of his character purely through body language and emotion alone. The subtleties he brings to the performance really help to flesh out the character, and make him seem like a very grounded and real, albeit damaged individual who could exist, and as someone who the audience can form an emotional attachment to. As this is primarily a character study of Joe none of the supporting cast and characters really get all that much screen-time. Veteran actress Judith Roberts is strong in her limited scenes as Joe’s mother, and is the character who stands out the most, besides Joe himself, due largely to the impact of their scenes together. Then there’s Ekaterina Samsonov, who plays Nina, who also delivers a strong performance in her limited scenes, adding to the emotional weight of some key scenes.

There is a very minimalistic approach to the storytelling in this film, with Ramsay managing to say a lot with very little. This allows the audience to gradually piece things together and fill in any information that has been implied or eluded to. Much like Ramsay’s approach to the film’s violence, the story isn’t necessarily spoon-fed to the audience, but is instead brilliantly told through passing dialogue and letting Joe’s actions speak. Joe’s backstory is revealed to us, in exquisite fashion, gradually over time. All together there may be 15-20 seconds dedicated to explicitily briefing us on his past, but we’re able to gather plenty of information from the snippets woven and dispersed in the present day storyline. There are some elements of the story that are perhaps left a little too unspoken, potentially leading to some confusion if it isn’t all pieced together correctly, but for the most part it’s an easy story to follow as it violently unfolds.

You Were Never Really Here is a fantastic film, offering a fresh minimalistic take on storytelling coupled with a heavily character-centric plot, that really makes it stand out in the psychological thriller sub-genre. With this film, Lynne Ramsay has proven she’s more than capable of crafting a captivating story, and telling it in a way that is fresh and provocative. It’s a somewhat slower story, so some viewers may not respond to that, but the gripping intensity will soon have you forgetting about the slower pace and runtime – it will all fly by.

FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

You Were Never Really Here was screened and reviewed as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival.

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