Arts Review

You Were Never Really Here, A Film Review by Marc Glassman

You Were Never Really Here, A Film Review by Marc Glassman featured image

You Were Never Really Here
Lynne Ramsay, director & script based on a novel by Jonathan Ames
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix (Joe), Ekaterina Samsonov (Nina Votto), Alex Manette (Senator Albert Votto), Judith Roberts (Joe’s mother), John Doman (John McCleary)

At Cannes 2017, the film won best actor (for Phoenix) and best screenplay (for Ramsay)

You could post this as the match made on Tinder: a couple of artists who just want to be unhappy together. That’s Lynne Ramsay and Joaquin Phoenix. Ramsay is a brilliant in-your-face director who makes you work to figure out what’s happening in her movies. Phoenix would like to be this generation’s Marlon Brando—the Method Actor as Superstar—but let’s be realistic: he’s more like the 21st century’s Ben Gazzara, immensely talented but unlikely to ever turn into a movie icon.

You can imagine Ramsay and Phoenix locked in an unholy embrace, in love with not being in love, feeling despair for what has grown wrong with humanity.

Who is never really here in this intense genre film that takes on Taxi Driver and is at least in its heavyweight class? It can’t be Senator Albert Votto or Governor Williams; they’re just your typical perverted politicians. Nor is it John Doman’s intelligent take on John McCleary, who is the standard middleman in a bloodbath of a mystery—just another guy waiting to end up dead. And it can’t be the only two women with more than a couple speaking lines in the film—the blonde little girl and the mother, both of whom Phoenix’s Joe wants to protect.

So OK.: thank you, Ms. Ramsay. It’s Joaquin’s Killer Joe. He’s a contract killer, who served in the military in Afghanistan or Iraq and saw little kids being blown away by a war that no one wanted to have happen. He was an abused child and spends his spare time testing out what it would be like to asphyxiate himself on the plastic wraps cleaners put your clothes in before delivering them to you.

Why isn’t Joe really here? Maybe Ramsay would hate me for this but let’s quote Dylan: “You’re invisible now, you got no secrets to conceal.” Even more than de Niro’s Travis Bickle, Joe is already done; if he continues to live, it’s to help others. At the end of Taxi Driver, you entertain the possibility that Travis might survive; with Phoenix’s Joe, there’s no doubt: he’s done, except as a saviour.

Lynne Ramsay continues to make films that penetrate the human heart. Here she’s crafted a story about Nina, a beautiful pre-teen girl, who has to deal with the most perverse of desires. The only man she trusts is Joe and he is not only the one who won’t betray her, he’s actually sensitive enough to learn from Nina.

For literary types like me, these stories say everything about Ramsay. She was given The Lovely Bones in galleys and was asked to make the film. But when the book [about a dead raped girl narrating her story] became an international bestseller and the producers wanted her to remain faithful to the text, she walked away from the project. Offered freedom to adapt another extremely difficult literary hit, We Need to Talk About Kevin, she and Tilda Swinton turned the story about a mother dealing with the aftermath of her son being a teenaged mass-murderer in his high school into a virtuoso film.

Ramsay will take on anything. So will Phoenix. Cue applause.

Question from the audience. No, I don’t recommend You Were Never Really Here as a date film.

Click here for more film reviews from Marc Glassman.

Written by Marc Glassman
Adjunct Professor, Ryerson University
Director, Pages UnBound: the festival and series
Editor, POV Magazine
Editor, Montage Magazine
Film Critic, The New Classical FM
Film programmer, Planet in Focus

Tune in to hear Marc Glassman’s Art Reviews
Friday’s at 9:07am on Classical Mornings with Mike and Jean.


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