Courtesy of Amazon Studios
“You Were Never Really Here” is a brutal character study about dealing with trauma. Written and directed by Lynne Ramsay, “Here” is a cinematically gripping film, even if some of the pieces feel a bit tethered from the rest of the picture. The film stars a grizzly bearded Joaquin Phoenix as the antihero of our story Joe, who lives with his elderly mother in the house where he spent his traumatized childhood. He’s a former soldier and law enforcement officer who now works in private security: a gun for hire. Joe is often recommended for his brutal slashing's and take no prisoners philosophy, but he’s most sought after for his recovery of missing teens on behalf of wealthy parents.
His latest trek is to recover a teenager, Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), the daughter of a young politician (Alex Manette). Nina, we’re told, has been lured into an underground pedophile ring and has been asked to rescue her discreetly by using any means necessary. Since Joe seemingly lives inside his abusive memories (he often throws a plastic bag over his head and attempts to kill himself) these type of missions are right in his old backyard. His retributive violence is like riding a bicycle: he never forgets.
The staging by Ramsay is top notch, with elicit camera angle techniques that allow the violence to be in your face, without being relentless. One sequence shows Joe infiltrating a sex ring, and we see it through the lens of security monitors switching back and forth between each camera. We see Joe walk up to a thug - the camera pans away - and next thing we see is the dude lying face down in a puddle of his own blood. I liked this, because it really doesn’t exploit itself, rather letting the mind wander through slippery conventions.
Through his demons, Ramsay gives us a clear mental picture of the life Joe’s lived. In one sequence, a group of girls ask if Joe could snag their picture. He offers his politeness in contrast to his brutality, but he can’t shake the feeling of something lurking in the shadows. Is he seeing something? Or does one of these girls look familiar to his aching past?
Soon after, Joe is on the idle of a shady conspiracy which throws him and Nina in danger. And since the movie is only 90 minutes, it really never develops Nina and Joe’s relationship beyond a few small interactions. We get the feeling they have a fondness for each other, but everything is told and done so quick, I felt like I missed something.
Still, “Here” is a character portrait with a unique style which is headlined by a slick Phoenix doing solid work. Even if the odds are poised to stack against the narrative, in the end, “Here” succeeds as a cerebral film with more than a few things to say.