BFI LFF 2017 – You Were Never Really Here (2017)


Adapted from the eponymous Jonathan Ames novella, You Were Never Really Here marks Lynne Ramsey’s directorial return since 2011’s We Need to Talk About Kevin. Premiering at Cannes 2017, the adaptation received a seven-minute standing ovation, as well as the Best Screenplay and Best Actor awards. Now set for distribution by Amazon Studios, the anticipation for Ramsey’s return to the big screen is high.

You Were Never Really Here focuses on Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), a troubled enforcer who rescues young girls from the sex trade. He takes on a rescue mission involving teenager Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), but his actions have violent ramifications.

Mainly comprising concepts such as death, guilt and children, Ramsey’s films are thematically intense and this is no exception. She establishes the level of brutality and quiet contemplation from the offset while highlighting the film’s emotionless tone. As a result, its slow and bleak mood doesn’t capture the tension of this supposed thriller – instead, it offers an insight into a troubled soul looking for salvation. Ramsey also provides minimal character development behind Joe, especially when it comes to his past, so she impedes the audience’s ability to resonate with him as the protagonist.

However, Phoenix commands the screen in his fierce performance as Joe – a grizzly, scarred man whose emotional scars and childhood trauma builds a layer of necessary complexity. His poignant scenes with his mother (played by Judith Roberts) also nicely break up the long gaps of silence, not to mention deliver much-needed light-hearted moments.

Behind the camera, the film is especially unforgiving in terms of conveying the brutality of Joe’s job. Cloaked in darkness, the action keeps the audience’s attention glued to the screen, allowing Ramsey and cinematographer Thomas Townsend to guide viewers with profound visuals and clever edits. Combined with Jonny Greenwood’s score, it is an atmospheric journey that is all-action, no talk.

As an intense, ruthless thriller, You Were Never Really Here ticks the boxes in terms of narrative, style and acting.

Director: Lynne Ramsey
Stars: Joaquin Phoenix, Ekaterina Samsonov, Alex Manette, Judith Roberts
Runtime: 85 minutes
Country: USA

Film Rating: ★★★★☆


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