Film Review: You Were Never Really Here

As part of the Glasgow Film Festival

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A suffocating, transcendental, and understated psychological drama, You Were Never Really Here, elevates Glasgow-born director Lynne Ramsey to the forefront of up-and-coming cinematic pioneers. Starring an almost unrecognisable Joaquin Phoenix as Joe, a hammer wielding antihero who is hired by a Senator to recover his kidnapped daughter from a paedophile ring, this atmospheric, almost neo-noir piece explores the tribulations of a mentally and physically scarred man, as he struggles through his life despite his haunting past threatening to consume him.

Adapted from a short story of the same name by Jonathan Ames, the film strays from conventions of a frantic action movie by focusing more on a character study rather than allowing the revenge plot to dominate, and thus transcends genre from crime to almost psychological thriller and even horror at times. Relying little on dialogue, Phoenix gives an outstanding yet subdued performance as Joe. His rugged and beaten look captures the ferocity of the character, especially in the brutal action scenes. However, his restrained demeanour aptly captivates the audience and grounds the character in the moving scenes in which Joe cares for his elderly mother.

Joe is haunted by a dark past that is never fully revealed to or understood by the audience, as a lack of exposition means we only learn about Joe’s trauma as his PTSD forces fleeting flashbacks on him. These quick visions of his past hint towards an abusive childhood at the hands of his father, alongside war traumas, and are incredibly effective. Through these transient glimpses, Joe’s reality becomes distorted and confused, just as the audience is confused by the disorder of actuality on screen. This uncertainty reveals Joe to be an unreliable narrator, and as the sequence of events happen, the audience become less and less aware of the binary between reality and hallucinated happenings.

The neo-noir atmosphere creates an unforgettable style, not least in the use of lighting which is reminiscent of that in John Wick or Drive. Also, an inescapable lasting impression from the film is its score by Jonny Greenwood, which perfectly fits the melange of loud barbarity and haunting beauty in the film – the music at times would be appropriate for a Berlin nightclub, and at other points it feels suggestive of The Omen score.

This dark and confused tale of revenge and salvation is an unmissable thriller which enchants its audience with a pitiable character and unforgiving imagery.

[Ellen Magee – @mondaymagee]

More information about the Glasgow Film Festival, including a full list of upcoming screenings and events, is available here.

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