A film about a contract killer where the act of violence is secondary to the aftermath, award-winning director Lynne Ramsay chooses to focus on the psychological in You Were Never Really Here; a move that creates some brilliantly subdued and poignant moments throughout but ultimately fails to create an overall memorable viewing experience.
Following the life of Joe as he straggles between a mundane existence at home with his mother and bashing people’s skulls in with a hammer, the film uniquely keeps the focus away from the latter, making it an afterthought compared to the primarily psychological action within Joe’s fractured psyche. Joaquin Phoenix carries the entire film on his shoulders as a man whose troubled past has left him a broken husk; his bursts of brutal violence never seem to come from a place of aggression but instead one of sadness. Each kill seems detached and unsatisfying to Joe much like the people around him; the action is never meant to seem stylised or thrilling but the few sequences that do depict it are very well crafted. Ramsay’s direction is strongest in these self-contained, brilliantly executed sequences that act as the emotional and visceral peaks of the film. A transcendental underwater moment stands out as particularly entrancing yet scenes like this are few and far between with huge segments of the film lagging due to the detached tone and slow pace.
The main flaw with the film is in its often more ‘highbrow’ aspirations; many scenes suffer from a unique form of pretentiousness that usually relegates itself to student films with the limited dialogue and humourless characters. Combine this with a quite predictable narrative that lacks the emotional weight it thinks it has and You Were Never Really Here becomes little more than a shell for Phoenix to explore a more cerebral take on a well-known character type akin to John Wick or Logan. His performance remains the main selling point and reason to see the film with all other aspects playing catch up in order to support him; with a tighter script and perhaps some stronger supporting characters, the film would be able to work on more than just one level.
You Were Never Really Here can be beautiful and heartbreaking at times but when the credits finally roll, it becomes clear that it never managed to transcend its lead performance or the detached tone of Ramsay’s direction.