Review: You Were Never Really Here

Last Updated on August 2, 2021

Originally reviewed for Sundance 2018

PLOT: A brutal hired gun (Joaquin Phoenix) tries to save a young girl from a pedophile ring.

REVIEW: If YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE had come out in 2017, the best actor Oscar race would have been over – no one could have possibly given Joaquin Phoenix a run for his money with this ranking as one of the great screen performances of the decade. And I don’t say that lightly. There’s no way that, when 2018 draws to a close, this won’t be my favorite film of the year. It’s the one film I've seen at Sundance this year that I can honestly call a masterpiece.

Directed by Lynne Ramsay from a novella by Jonathan Ames, this is one of the great genre deconstructions. Imagine your typical tough guy thriller, albeit with a serious art-house sheen and a non-linear way of conveying exposition – while at the same time not having an ounce of pretentiousness about it. That’s what this is, with Joaquin Phoenix having the role of a lifetime as a scarred vet, making a living as a brutal contract killer.

In many ways, this is his Travis Bickle, with him similarly in the midst of a total psychological breakdown from the first frame. He attacks his (deserving) victims with a sadistic streak and routinely tries to kill himself over the course of the film, even submitting himself to acts of masochism, as in one scene where he unnervingly rips out one of his own teeth. He pops pills throughout, with Ramsay’s dreamy style evoking a life lived in the shadow of opioid use, while also having him prone to bouts of near-mania, such as when he teases his dementia-addled mom about watching PSYCHO on TV.

As crazy as he clearly is though, he has his reasons. While not explicitly stated, we get that he was in the war and saw heinous acts of violence done towards women by insurgents, an experience mirrored when, during some kind of stint in law enforcement, he went up against human traffickers. He’s crazy and brutal, but he’s compassionate, and really does want to help the young girl he tries to rescue from pedophiles, Ekaterina Samsonov’s Nina.

In other hands, this might have been a routine vigilante film, but while we’ve seen similar plots done before, they’ve never, ever, been done like this. That Ramsay’s the kind of director that she is gives this an utterly original vibe, with her refusal to linger on acts of violence making them seem even harsher when they happen (Phoenix’s character prefers to use hammers over guns). So many scenes in this could go down as classics, such as an already heavily discussed scene where Phoenix interrogates a gunman, but then winds up getting high and singing along with him to AM radio.

As in her other films, the visuals are hallucinatory, with incredible lensing by Thomas Townend, while Jonny Greenwood’s score is beyond compare (peppered with inspired pop selections – like The Hollies “The Air That I Breathe” in a tense moment). To me, Lynne Ramsay has made a masterpiece, and one of the great tough-guy neo-noir actioners. I honestly can’t say for sure that I’ve ever seen a better film in all the eight years I’ve been covering Sundance and that’s the truth – as I waited days before writing this to make sure my feelings didn’t change. YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE is the real deal, and one of the decade’s greatest films.


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About the Author

Chris Bumbray began his career with JoBlo as the resident film critic (and James Bond expert) way back in 2007, and he has stuck around ever since, being named editor-in-chief in 2021. A voting member of the CCA and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic, you can also catch Chris discussing pop culture regularly on CTV News Channel.