You Were Never Really Here review: Joaquin Phoenix revenge thriller is like an avant-garde Taken

Phoenix and director Lynne Ramsay are at the top of their game in this brutally-executed subversive action movie

Christopher Hooton
Friday 19 January 2018 16:45 GMT

The role of an assassin in a revenge thriller is not an obvious one for an actor like Joaquin Phoenix who has the luxury of choosing any role he wants, but this is not an obvious movie. Look behind the camera and you can see why, You Were Never Really Here being directed by somewhat reluctant/selective filmmaker Lynne Ramsay (We Need to Talk About Kevin) and adapted from self-confessed "mildly perverted" writer Jonathan Ames (creator of HBO's Bored To Death).

Joe (Phoenix) is a contract killer whose latest job, emancipating a young girl (Ekaterina Samsonov) from kidnap lands him in scalding hot water with a paedophile ring with political ties that want him dead.

The plot is almost incidental, however, as this is a study of a killer not his killings. Joe is suicidal, fantasising about death, self-asphyxiating and playing stabscotch-esque knife games in his dear, elderly mother's home where he still lives, kind of hoping one day the knife will actually strike him. Truly, We Need To Talk About Joe, Too.

He stays mostly silent as his world unravels and we stay with him constantly, living this man's pain. The muted and yet intense nature of the role is what required the casting of a Joaquin Phoenix in it. Phoenix has never looked so sad and deathly yet so deranged and alive, clearly finding parts of himself for this character that you'd be scared to ever meet. Even his mass is somehow gruesome, the actor having absolutely piled on both muscle and fat, to the point where, stalking the corridors of a mansion, he looks strong enough to punch down a skyscraper and yet likely to succumb to cholesterol heart attack at any moment. He shakes, he absents, he roars and he giggles in front of the camera, which can't help but keep its lens on him.

You Were Never Really Here - Trailer

You Were Never Really Here feels like a cross-between Leon: The Professional, Drive and the Safdie brothers' Good Time, and while it not might be quite as good as any of these it is certainly a more intense viewing experience, thanks to a fearsome, violent score from Jonny Greenwood (who is unstoppable lately) and expert direction. This film is all in the editing, and Ramsay has done an incredible job here, managing to give the film a slow burn feel and yet keep it constantly gripping. Some of the cinematic touches are unorthodox and masterful, and the film may have my favourite title reveal of all time (look out for it, you'll know what I mean).

And yet the film isn't perfect. The nods to Joe's history of witnessing domestic abuse as a child and the horrors of war as an adult soldier make total sense with regards to his subsequent disorder and depression, but I didn't want a properly motivated character. Such a fucked up, avant-garde take on the genre feels like it doesn't require such a thing. In addition, some of the scenes appear the product of the writer/director thinking, "what's the most expectation-subverting way this person could deal with this situation?" Joe lying on the kitchen floor with the man who just [SPOILER], holding hands with him and singing softly to the radio, might work in a book but just feels a bit too left-field when played out on screen.

This is a stunning, gut-punch of a film though, technically adept and masterfully acted it thumps others of the genre into mush, showing that a Taken-style story needn't be redundant of art.

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