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You Were Never Really Here Movie Review (Spoiler Free)

Joaquin Phoenix gives one of his best portrayals, in this explosive tale that combines the likes of Taxi Driver, Taken, Psycho and Drive.

Genre: Crime / Drama / Thriller

Director: Lynne Ramsay Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Ekaterina Samsonov, Judith Roberts, Dante Pereira-Olson, John Doman, Frank Pando & Alex Manette.

Run Time: 89 min.

US Release: 06 April 2018

UK Release: 09 March 2018

German Release: 26 April 2018

You Were Never Really Here, also known as A Beautiful Day in non-English speaking European countries, is a psychological crime-drama based on the 2013 novella of the same name, written by Jonathan Ames. Directed and adapted by Scottish filmmaker Lynne Ramsay, this dark and violent thriller managed to catch my full attention from the opening sequence onwards. However, it is not an easy film to indulge in, as the matter of the subject can be off-putting, while its graphic violence is used as a shock factor. I, on the other hand, was blown away by its premise, never having read the book.

Joe, a grizzled and traumatised Gulf War veteran, is working as a hired gun who lives with his elderly mother. Specialised in recovering missing teens and returning from yet another successfully job, he is given a mission to recover Nina, the 13-year-old daughter of an ambitious New York senator. He soon learns, however, that there is more to the story than he was let to believe.

Ames’ book was described as using minimalistic literary features to drive a fast-paced thriller while building a solid main character. Ramsay took precisely the same approach with this version of the novella, swaying away from a plot that is driven by its narrative and instead, letting the cinematography unravel the tale on screen. The result is a beautifully crafted character study of the main character Joe, who suffers from PTSD. While the movie is of intense violent nature, depicting the criminal branch of child sex trade and prostitution, the plot structure is used as a metaphor for the protagonist’s fractured mind.

The dialogue is kept at a minimum, not spoon-feeding the audience with heavy expository talks. It is only used when absolutely necessary or as a tool, to show some of the more suave sides of the primary persona. This helps to build up more tension, intensifying the experience in theatres.

Joaquin Phoenix, who plays the protagonist Joe, gives one of his most memorable renditions. Joe is a man capable of unbelievable brutality, yet, he also surprises with the quiet and tender nature that he has when dealing with children and women. He is especially carrying about his mother, possibly because both suffered from intense beatings from his father when he was a child. This psychological trauma manifests in violent outbursts, which he uses when working as a hitman, saving underage children from sex traffickers. On top of that comes a turbulent past in the military and FBI, causing further mental damage in the form of PTSD and suicidal thoughts.

The role of the kidnapped Nina Votto was given to Ekaterina Samsonov, who does a brilliant job at depicting the traumatised girl. While not being in this feature longer than a quarter of its length, she manages to give her character a large chunk of credibility thanks to her impressive acting skills. Nina forms a strong bond with her saviour fast, as her persona mirrors the abusive background, experienced by Joe in his childhood. The impeccable chemistry between the two actors made that connection believable.

Thomas Townend, cinematographer of this project, crafted a stunning looking movie, using three distinctive choices of shots. The first one being the handsome long shots that linger in the background when Joe is doing his rounds in the city, making them seem almost documental. People, cars or trains jump into frame, cutting us off from the main character but giving the audience a feeling as if they are part of the story. The second factor is the use of medium shots and close-ups that are used when Joe is having a panic attack or experiencing a flashback, triggered by specific objects or persons.

Third and final is when the protagonist is displaying aggressive behaviour towards others. As I stated before, this is a brutal indie feature, but interestingly, the violence towards other persons is never fully shown. The production team uses security cam footage, pans the camera away, or uses the reflection of a broken mirror to dampen the aggression. You Were Never Really Here is a highly complex film that demands from the viewer to pay acute attention to every little detail happening on screen, a refreshing change from the often, exposition-heavy movies nowadays.

The score is a vital component of this film, setting up the mood and tension during specific scenes with bass-heavy beats that begin just as abrupt as they suddenly stop. Horror-like melodies are used at times for brutal outings, and strange but awkwardly suiting songs are mingled in during scenes, reflect the situation displayed on screen. It is a versatile soundtrack, with each piece serving a purpose.


Verdict: Lynne Ramsay created a minimalistic, yet powerful feature that left me speechless. The narrative is not the main focus of the plot, reflecting the source material’s stylistic choice. Instead, we are served with a chillingly detailed character study of the main protagonist, while the story structure serves as a reflection of Joe’s troubled mind, merely hinting at his painful past. Phoenix himself gives the character a vast amount of depth and plays his violent outbursts and periodic disorientation to perfection. On the other hand, it is also worth mentioning that young actress Ekaterina Samsonov gave a magnificent rendition of her character in the limited amount of screen time given. The cinematography is superb, combining different styles for different aspects of the story. The same goes for the soundtrack; each score was picked to fit a scene. You Were Never Really Here is a magnificent piece of art, and I will give it a well-deserved 10 out of 10.

This is a heavy film to digest, but it is worth watching! I recommend it to anyone who likes flicks that take their time to unfold and who don’t shy away when it gets a little bloody. What did you think of You Were Never Really Here? Leave a comment below and thank you for reading!

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