Review: You Were Never Really Here

An Eye on Cinema

A year after its premiere at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, where it won the festival’s Best Actor and Best Screenplay trophies, Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here is finally really here and it is filmmaking at its most ambitious, most macabre, and most masterful. It transmutes a potboiler to poetry, injecting what would be a serviceable thriller with lyricism, tragedy, and surrealism. By virtue of its subversion of genre conventions and ubiquitous dramatic devices, You Were Never Really Here represents creativity in film unlike any other in recent memory. 

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Joaquin Phoenix plays Joe, the protagonist of You Were Never Really Here

The plot follows Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), a combat veteran and former FBI agent turned hitman who rescues victims of sex trafficking.  His most recent assignment is to rescue the abducted daughter of a New York State Senator. The plot is decidedly platitudinous and is reminiscent of the plot of Taken. Unlike Taken, however, where it was protagonist Bryan Mills’s daughter who was caught in the crossfires of the principal abduction plot, Joe has no such personal involvement to the case in hand. It’s ironic, then, that You Were Never Really Here is a far more personal film than Taken.

Ramsay … knows exactly what cinematic approach best suits Joe’s story, and her approach with Joe’s story is unlike anything ever witnessed in the history of film.

The key differentiator between Ramsay’s film and the action film is how invested the former is in its protagonist’s essence. You Were Never Really Here has the guts to dig deep into the conscience of Joe. Yet, on paper, You Were Never Really Here‘s decision to invest itself primarily in its protagonist isn’t anything new either. It’s something that has been accomplished to tremendous success with films like Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive. Ramsay doesn’t let this deter her, however, as she knows exactly what cinematic approach best suits Joe’s story, and her approach with Joe’s story is unlike anything ever witnessed in the history of film.

Flashbacks are a common dramatic device, but Ramsay’s use of flashbacks subvert what we have come to expect of them.

Ramsay guides her audience through Joe’s internal self with flashbacks. Flashbacks are a common dramatic device, but Ramsay’s use of flashbacks subvert what we have come to expect of them. Brusque yet feverish, Ramsay’s take on the device is authentic, as opposed to long-winded memories people don’t usually experience. Joe is imprisoned in a perennial predicament, tortured by traumatic experiences. Joe’s traumatic experiences are reflected in his unusual choice of weapon, a ball-peen hammer. Realism isn’t Ramsay’s objective. She throws surrealism into the mix, intending for us to apprehend that Joe is an unreliable narrator, haunted by apparitions of violence from his past and the violence that awaits him.

Ramsay’s vision is accentuated by the cinematography of Thomas Townend and the score of Jonny Greenwood. Thomas Townend’s cinematography plays a fundamental role in accomplishing Ramsay’s desired result of a poetic thriller. There is one scene in particular that involves an underwater burial which had my jaw dropping because of just how beautiful it was. The cinematography gets up-close with Joe, scrutinizing his every minute action and granting the audience the ability to connect with Joe on an intimate level.

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You Were Never Really Here‘s underwater burial scene had my jaw dropping!

On the other hand, Jonny Greenwood concocts music that at one moment captures Joe’s anguish and at another soothes the soul. Greenwood is one of our greatest living film composers and his score for You Were Never Really Here is touted to be his finest to date. I prefer his Oscar-nominated score for Phantom Thread, but there is no doubt that Greenwood’s score miraculously captures several nuances of Joe’s internal self.

For its audacity and creativity alone, You Were Never Really Here deserves the attention of cinephiles around the globe.

Ultimately, for a film focused this much around its protagonist, its cumulative emotional effect boils down to the lead performance. Having won the Cannes Film Festival’s Best Actor trophy, Joaquin Phoenix’s performance serves as the heart of the film.  As the film’s troubled antihero, Phoenix imbues Joe with an authentic sense of tragedy and a muddled sense of what’s moral. His eyes beam with sadness, making it difficult to not sympathize with him.

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Joaquin Phoenix’s award-winning performance gives You Were Never Really Here it’s emotional baggage

In the end, You Were Never Really Here is pure cinema. It’s a film that understands the power of its medium and utilizes it to full effect to overwhelm its audience in a tale of grief, loss, and violence. It’s the kind of film that rarely gets made. For its audacity and creativity alone, You Were Never Really Here deserves the attention of cinephiles around the globe. It is bound to be a classic and shall be recognized for how it manipulates the audience’s emotional response. 

You Were Never Really Here doesn’t have a Singapore release scheduled as of yet. We’re not condoning illegal activity, but suffice to say: Don’t miss this one! If you have an appreciation for great cinema, you will want to find a way to screen this masterpiece.

Author: Aryan Varma

Aryan Varma is a junior and this is his first year as a reporter for The Eye. He has been at SAS for the past three years, and at Singapore for the past five. Regarded as the most perceptive film scholar at SAS by the school community, Aryan is the primary film columnist for The Eye. To call him a film-buff would be an understatement, for Aryan sets himself apart by his constant initiative to pursue film. If he isn’t building upon or showing off his remarkable knowledge of film history, he would be found listening to a wide-range of music. He can be contacted at varma45798@sas.edu.sg.

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