(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.