‘You Were Never Really Here’ Review: Joaquin Phoenix Earns a Best Actor Prize

By  · Published on May 30th, 2017

Director/writer Lynne Ramsay takes home Best Screenplay while Phoenix wins Best Actor for their stunning work.

In her few feature films, Scottish director Lynne Ramsay has taken various approaches to explore grieving. Her 2002 film Morvern Callar examined a woman’s life dramatically altered by the suicide of her boyfriend. Her 2011 follow-up, We Need to Talk About Kevin, used a non-elliptical approach to explore the relationship between a mother and her son, who would eventually plan a school shooting and be killed. Ramsay would begin to direct Jane Got A Gun in 2015, but eventually abandoned the project mid-shoot due to creative issues. Thus, Ramsay’s first film since 2011 is the stunning You Were Never Really Here.

Joe lives with his mother. The large scars spread across his torso indicate some trauma, though their source remains a mystery. His delicate mental state reflects a form of PTSD along with the effects of a crippling loss of some kind. Joe’s latest contract – he works in “private security – comes from a senator, who has recruited him to save his daughter from a violent sex-trafficking ring. The job sounds rather simple: Enter the lightly guarded bordello and take the girl. Joe’s client has not shared all relevant details for the job, nor has he warned Joe of the deadly repercussions.

Lynne Ramsay must be heavily applauded for her expert control of the material. It’s somewhat surprising that she won Best Screenplay for her work, as the film’s script is its weakest component. Ramsay knows that her screenplay is slight and uses what is left of the page to build her masterful film. Through precise visuals, Ramsay shows an expert control of tone. From the very first frame, You Were Never Really Here is overwhelmingly arresting. Relying solely on her visuals, Ramsay successfully captures the fragile mental state of her protagonist. Extreme close-ups are utilized throughout to invoke the sensitivity with which Joe experiences his surroundings.

There is very little text in You Were Never Really Here to give the viewer insight into Joe’s past. The dialogue itself offers no hints no references to whatever life-altering experiences have affected Joe’s mind and body. Ramsay and Phoenix work to leave the viewer little puzzle pieces; pieces that do not fit together, but pieces nonetheless. It is often a quick visual cut to memory, cued from something in the present that will offer a brief glimpse into the mind. Phoenix plays the mysterious character with utter perfection. His Best Actor win is perhaps the most justified of any of this year’s awards. It is the collaboration between Phoenix and Ramsay that propel You Were Never Really Here past Taken-like potboiler towards mesmerizing character study. Phoenix brings his usual striking presence to his role, playing Joe as both fully actualized character and otherworldly foreigner. The performance manages to evoke sympathy while also being somewhat monstrous. This man can pick up a hammer and smash someone’s brains in without a second though. He can also connect on an achingly humane level with a man he has just brought to the verge of death.

Along with editor Joe Bini, Ramsay has created a master class in film construction. You Were Never Really Here is assembled with a beautiful erraticism that is as important to the tone as the content itself. In a miraculous feat of editing – one that Ramsay insists came into her head just two weeks ago – the film jumps around a song that plays throughout a scene. As if observed via surveillance cameras, the song skips ahead, or back, a couple of seconds as Joe moves from room to room. The effect is a welcome disorientation that furthers the mind-bending quality of the film.

After a long festival of mostly mediocre works, You Were Never Really Here is the perfect movie to close out the official competition. It is not only the best film at the festival, but it provides a last-minute jolt of adrenaline, reinvigorating the power of cinema that fizzled out in the weeks before.

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Toronto-based cinephile who especially enjoys French films.