Joaquin Phoenix and Lynne Ramsay, a formidable team in You Were Never Really Here

“The films that I saw repeatedly over the years held up not because of plot but because of character and a very different approach to story.” — Martin Scorsese

You Were Never Really Here sounds like the kind of thriller we’ve seen many times before, but it’s much more than a revenge story.

Joaquin Phoenix stars as Joe, a professional assassin who rescues missing children. Joe’s childhood trauma and military past have pushed him to his limit both mentally and emotionally. He is damaged. He suffers racing thoughts and flashbacks. He seems barely able to function in society, often standing at the precipice of suicide before backing away, only slightly, from the edge.

Joe is hired to find a senator’s daughter who has been kidnapped and taken to an underground brothel that uses underage girls to satisfy the perversions of wealthy, powerful men. The senator asks Joe, “ I heard you were brutal. Are you?” Joe’s quiet deadpan response: “I can be.”

Joe demonstrates his brutality by abducting a man leaving the brothel to acquire the entrance code. Once inside, he uses a hammer with precise unflinching ferocity to take out each patron. He rescues the senator’s daughter and a wordless bond, only possible by two traumatized people, passes between them. However, the power of this underground brothel extends further than Joe could have imagined. He has stolen “one of their favorite girls,” and retaliation against him is swift, violent, and absolute.

(L-R) Ekaterina Samsonov as Nina and Joaquin Phoenix as Joe.

(L-R) Ekaterina Samsonov as Nina and Joaquin Phoenix as Joe.

All of this sounds like the plot of any number of revenge films, but it’s director Lynne Ramsay’s approach to the material that makes this a unique cinematic experience you won’t soon forget. She uses sound, imagery, music, and quick cuts to let the audience experience what Joe is feeling. She never tells us what we should think about these characters. You have to be willing to suspend the need for a traditional narrative, enjoy the dream-like imagery, and let the film speak to you.

Ironically, one of the reasons female directors have been shut out of the profession is because studios often consider women’s films to lack excitement and intensity. Ramsay’s work has been called “poetic,” and it is, but poetry doesn’t mean boring. She uses details, visuals, and sounds to tell us about the characters instead of slowing the film down with labored explanations.

You Were Never Really Here is a film that fully immerses you, exercising your senses, and needs to be seen in a theater. Sure, this is a brutal, intense thriller, but it’s also an unflinching look into the psyche of a damaged man who has learned to survive whatever terrible things happen to him.

Though it picked up the best actor and best screenplay awards at The Cannes Film Festival, You Were Never Really Here may only play in limited release. That means if you want to see it in a theater as it was intended, check out its local run.

Opens Friday, April 27 at the State Theater.
233 S. State St., Ann Arbor. 734.668.TIME. michtheater.org

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