(Winner of the Best Actor Prize to Joaquin Phoenix and Co-Winner of the Best Screenplay Prize to Lynne Ramsay with Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou for The Killing of a Sacred Deer) Based on the novel by Jonathan Ames, You Were Never Really Here is the story of a troubled mercenary who is hired by a politician to retrieve his daughter from a human trafficking network that the man has to destroy as he copes with the job and other issues. Written for the screen and directed by Lynne Ramsay, the film is the study of a man whose job is to retrieve missing young girls as he deals with the chaos of his most recent assignment. Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Judith Roberts, Ekaterina Samsonov, John Doman, Alex Manette, Dante Pereira-Olson, and Alessandro Nivola. You Were Never Really Here is an intense and haunting film from Lynne Ramsay.
The film revolves around a man whose job is to retrieve young girls and women who have been kidnapped as he is asked by a politician to retrieve his daughter only to uncover a human trafficking network that is bigger than he realizes as he copes with his own trauma relating to his childhood and his time as a soldier. It is a film with a simple premise that plays into a man who takes a job to find and save young women yet this one job ends up being much more troubling than he realizes as it also relates to politics and power. Lynne Ramsay’s screenplay is largely straightforward yet it follows the mind of its protagonist in Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) who does his job in secrecy as he would spend his off-time tending to his aging mother (Judith Roberts).
When he meets his boss John McCleary (John Doman) about an assignment to retrieve the daughter of Senator Albert Votto (Alex Mannette) in Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov). Joe accepts the job yet he remains troubled by his own past as a child (Dante Pereira-Olson) as well as flashbacks as a soldier as it adds to obstacle of his job. Especially as Nina is at the center of this where political power is involved as the film’s second half has Joe deal with what Nina’s father is involved in as trouble ensues. Even as it leads to this trail of blood and anger that Joe would venture into as it play into a dark world that he would encounter yet that world would cross a line that not even Joe would go into.
Ramsay’s direction is definitely riveting for the fact that it aims for something simple but also with elements that are a bit surreal and unsettling. Shot on location in New York City and areas near and at upstate New York as well as interior shots at the Astoria Studios in New York City. Ramsay chooses to avoid many of the city’s many landmarks in favor of going more into areas not often seen as it play into this world that Joe lives in where he lives on the fringes of society. While there are some wide shots that Ramsay uses to establish a few locations and settings in the film, Ramsay chooses to maintain an intimacy on the film as well as create small glimpses of Joe’s own troubled childhood and his time at war. The usage of close-ups and medium shots add to the anguish that Joe endures but also his actions when it comes to dealing with the situation at hand. One aspect that Ramsay does in the film is her approach to violence as much of it is either off-screen or shown from afar with graphic elements are shown in the aftermath of a violent event.
Ramsay also play into this air of intrigue as she often has scenes of Joe wrapping his head around plastic as a way to envision death as it play into his own suicidal thoughts. Ramsay isn’t afraid to play into elements of darkness while she emphasizes on what she doesn’t show as it relates to the world of sex trafficking other than just what needs to be shown. Even as the film leads to the third act where Joe does go hell-bent on uncovering the truth and get some form of justice such as a scene where he confronts a wounded hitman as it is Joe’s humanity that is the most shocking moment in a film that is intensely dark. The film’s climax that involves the main figure of this sex trafficking scandal is intense but on a more emotional approach where Ramsay play into Joe’s own traumas and the sheer chaos of the world he uncovered. Overall, Ramsay crafts a gripping and evocative film about a mercenary who is tasked to recover a politician’s daughter only to uncover the dark world of sex trafficking.
Cinematographer Thomas Townend does brilliant work with the cinematography in its emphasis on natural and low-key lighting while maintaining some stylish lighting for some of the interior scenes at night as it play into the suspense and terror. Editor Joe Bini does amazing work with the editing as its usage of jump-cuts and montages add to some of the drama and suspense while being straightforward in some parts of the film. Production designer Tim Grimes, with set decorator Kendall Anderson and art director Eric Dean, does excellent work with the look of Joe’s home where he lives with his mother, McCleary’s office, and the place where Joe finds Nina. Costume designer Malgosia Turzanska does fantastic work with the costumes as it is largely casual with the exception of the expensive suits that the politicians wear as well as a nightgown that Nina wears.
Special effects makeup designers Tom Denier Jr. and Vincent Schicchi do incredible work with the look of some of the wounds and such into some of the victims that Joe encounters or those he kills as it adds a sense of discomfort to the film. Visual effects supervisor Nick Bennett does nice work with a major visual effects scene in the third act as it play into Joe’s own despair as it relates to setbacks and what he must do. Sound designer Paul Davies does superb work with the sound as it adds to the film’s intense atmosphere in the way natural sounds are presented as well as gunshots are sound from afar as the sound design is a major highlight of the film. The film’s music by Jonny Greenwood is phenomenal with its emphasis on low-key orchestral arrangements to play into the suspense and drama as well as some eerie electronic and rock-based music pieces that help intensify the moments while music supervisors Catherine Grieves and Frederic Junqua cultivate a soundtrack that features other score pieces from other films as well as songs from Colbie Caillat, Albert Hammond, Joyce Heath, Charlene, Engelbert Humperdinck, and Eileen Barton and the New Yorkers as much of the music is played on a location for a scene in the film.
The casting by Billy Hopkins and Ashley Ingram is wonderful as it feature some notable small roles from Scott Price as a wounded hitman that Joe questions and comforts, Kate Easton as a younger version of Joe’s mother, Jonathan Wilde and Ronan Summers in the role of Joe’s father whose face is never seen, Frank Pando as a middleman named Angel who works with McCleary and runs a bodega, Vinicius Damasceno as Angel’s son Moises who had witness Joe return home following a job, Dante Pereira-Olson as the young Joe who witnesses and is a recipient of the abuse from his father, Alex Manette as Senator Albert Votto who hires Joe to get his daughter back as he is hiding something relating to a scandal, and Alessandro Nivola as a powerful politician in a state governor who is key player in this dark world of sex trafficking.
John Doman is excellent as Joe’s boss John McCleary as a man who gives Joe assignments while hoping to retire and offer Joe a chance to live a less troubled life. Judith Roberts is brilliant as Joe’s mother as a woman who has given Joe a reason to live despite her old age as well as being someone who is funny. Ekaterina Samsonov is amazing as Nina Votto as a teenage girl who has ran away and finds herself in the world of prostitution as she is unsure of how she got there while coping with the fact that she is really a pawn in a dark underworld. Finally, there’s Joaquin Phoenix in a magnificent performance as Joe as a mercenary hired to retrieve young women from sex traffickers as he is someone coping with trauma from his childhood and time as a soldier where Phoenix provides a restrained performance as someone who keeps to himself as is also a performance of terror and anguish where Phoenix creates a career-defining performance.
You Were Never Really Here is an outstanding film from Lynne Ramsay that features a great leading performance from Joaquin Phoenix. Along with its supporting cast, rapturous visuals, a gripping script, and an eerie music score from Jonny Greenwood. The film is definitely a haunting character study that explores a man coping with the past while trying to save a young girl from a dark underworld that proves to be bigger than he thought. In the end, You Were Never Really Here is a magnificent film from Lynne Ramsay.
Lynne Ramsay Films: Ratcatcher - Morvern Callar - We Need to Talk About Kevin
Related: The Auteurs #6: Lynne Ramsay - Favorite Films #9: Morvern Callar
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