(Editor’s Note: This review was originally published in January during the Sundance Film Festival. We’re republishing today, April 6, as it’s the day the movie is finally being released.)
Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here stars Joaquin Phoenix as a suicidal killer for hire who murders people with a ball-peen hammer, so it’s not as if it suffers from a lack of watchability. Ramsay (previously of We Need To Talk About Kevin) has such a gift for vivid, brutal composition, not to mention a moderate gore fetish, that it’s impossible to avoid comparisons to Drive.
But while both are brutal and beautiful with loud scores and star violent-but-gentle loners and aren’t particularly reliant on plot, Drive offers just enough story to go for a ride. You Were Never Really Here manages to land somewhere between poetry and prose, not quite abstract enough to work as abstraction and with a story that doesn’t quite track based on what’s there. It feels like a series of artsy tricks designed to conceal a lack of anything deeper. It’s a credit to Ramsay that the art tricks mostly work.
Phoenix plays Joe, our protagonist, and some of what we learn about him includes: He likes candy, he lives with his mom, he does some form of illegal work for hire with the help of two contractors, doesn’t like to be followed, has frequent hallucinations, and likes to suffocate himself with a plastic bag, a kind of just-the-tip, just-to-see-if-it-feels-good dalliance with suicide. Sometimes he imagines himself as a small boy. Oh, he’s also a veteran, which we learn via confusing flashback.
Joe’s latest assignment goes sideways, and the film might work better if that was all it gave us. Trouble is, it increasingly reveals a story that doesn’t hold up. Joe’s dream sequences and hallucinations offer hints that what we’re seeing isn’t literal truth or objective reality, and may instead be the product of an unreliable narrator. But it feels more like retroactive justification, a sort of creative ass-covering, than a choice — obfuscation not inspiration.
Caveats about the narrative reality aside, You Were Never Really Here posits a world where corrupt politicians kidnap the daughters of other corrupt politicians and sell them into mass underground human trafficking/white slavery rings, to be shot full of drugs and sweat on by pedophilic… uh… politicians. Which is, again, simultaneously too preposterous and not preposterous enough. It’s a little too wild to believe in You Were Never Really Here‘s gritty reality, yet feels like something you might see in an episode of Law and Order: Criminal Intent. Which makes it slightly less than compelling even if interpreted as a dream — kind of like when someone tells you about their dream and it isn’t that surreal or symbolic, it’s just kind of a mash-up of familiar things without the narrative rigor.
You Were Never Really Here doesn’t just lay its cards on the table right away. It parcels out clues to its reality one at a time, in tiny morsels, which allows it to stay compelling for most of the run time. It’s easy to watch Joe murder people and choke himself so long as you don’t fully understand the “why.” You don’t grasp the full reality until the very end, and so the story doesn’t fall apart until the credits roll, like a dream that dissolves as soon as you wake up. Maybe “You Were Never Really Here” is how you’re supposed to feel at the end of the movie.
If so, it’s a neat trick, but still just that: a trick. We’ve seen the dour revenge movie, the brutal vigilante with a soft spot for women and dogs, the haunted veteran, the abused and preyed-upon innocent white women. The idea that “maybe it was all just a dream” doesn’t do much to elevate that material, it’s mostly just of a piece with it. Dream and reality aren’t different enough from each other to offer an interesting contrast.