You Were Never Really Here(2018) Review

Joaquin Phoenix in You Were Never Really Here

Director : Lynne Ramsay
Genre : Thriller
Synopsis : A contract killer uncovers a conspiracy while trying to save a kidnapped teen from a life of prostitution. 

Weapon of Choice - Hammer!

We all love rooting for the bad guys. Watching films that delve into the psyche of the bad guy or seeing the anti-hero going through a moral conundrum is like performing a gripping understudy of evil. It's no small surprise then that films featuring contract killers, hitmen, and assassins not just serve as more than just a guilty pleasure, albeit a bloody one, but in some cases, transcend the action or thriller genre. 

It's interesting how cinema often uses the contract killer as an immoral tool to elicit different responses. Who can imagine the otherwise amiable Tom Hanks as a Depression era hitman in the critically acclaimed Road to Perdition(2002)? Then there are the likable duo of Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield from Quentin Tarantino's seminal neo-noir film Pulp Fiction(1994), whose rambling discussions that cover everything from foot massages to French names for American food items makes you want to hang out with them, despite their bloody shenanigans. With No Country for Old Men(2007), the Coen brothers carved out one of the most chilling portrayals of a hitman ever seen on screen in the form of the unstoppable Anton Chigurh, immortalized by an emotionless Javier Bardem. French director Luc Besson gave us not one, but two assassins - the female Nikita in La Femme Nikita(1990) and Jean Reno as the sunglasses wearing killer Leon from Leon: The Professional(1994).

You Were Never Really Here stars Joaquin Phoenix as Joe, a hitman with a brutal past, who tracks down missing girls. Now, you really have to give credit to the way both - director Lynne Ramsay and Joaquin Phoenix approach the central character and break the mold of the standard Hollywood action hero, by peeling away the masculine characteristics that we've usually come to associate with such characters. This is most noticeable in the tender relationship he shares with his elderly mother, often completing each other's sentences in sweet lullabies. 

A big beard, with more salt than pepper, bulky and scarred up, this is a far cry from the Joaquin Phoenix we've come to love, whether is was his deliciously perverse act in Gladiator(2000), as the genuinely sweet guy in Her(2013), or as the dope head investigator in Inherent Vice(2014). There is nothing attractive about his character, and the way Joaquin internalizes his character's sufferings is so harrowing, that at times, you may even feel more infected by the tragedy that unfolds around him. It's one of his best roles and fully justifies him winning the Best Actors award at the Cannes Film Festival. 

Joaquin Phoenix starrer You Were Never Really Here releases worldwide on 20th April

It's a brave move on the director's part to not include any choreographed action sequences for the sake of playing to the galleries, and to focus more on the mood of her central character. Most of the actual violent moments take place off screen, but you get a sense of the pulpy brutality through some sharp and clever editing.

While the film rests almost entirely on Joaquin's performance, it's a real pity that writer-director Lynne Ramsay does not invest the same effort in the supporting characters. There was plenty of potential here, especially in the characters of Nina, the kidnapped girl, as well as his mother, played by a heartfelt Judith Roberts, who definitely deserved a few more scenes. 

The premise for You Were Never Really Here makes it abundantly clear that this was a film that was meant to leave the audiences depressed. No doubt, Joaquin Phoenix's deeply intimate and personal act is affecting. However, that gets pretty much diluted by the absence of other well developed characters, which in turn makes his character's sufferings seem distant, and this itself dilutes the film's impact. 

At just under ninety minutes, the editing is tight and the story is told at a taut pace. What works here is that Ramsay uses the entire ninety minutes to keep its audiences tense. However, what could have been a heart wrenching character study of a killer, otherwise leaves you underwhelmed. 

I'm going with 2.5/5.


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