Movie Review: You Were Never Really Here

The local distributor has been sitting on this film for a while but YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE is finally making its commercial release here in Hong Kong more than a year after it debuted at the Cannes Film Festival where it nabbed the awards for Best Screenplay and Best Actor. Unfortunately, it’s up against the summer’s big Hollywood blockbusters (MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – FALLOUT and SKYSCRAPER) so don’t expect it to stick around in the cinemas for very long. It’s too bad because this is one well-crafted, psychological thriller with powerful performances led by Joaquin Phoenix (MARY MAGDALENE; IRRATIONAL MAN; HER) that deserves your attention.

Here, Phoenix plays a character named Joe who lives with his frail mother (played by Judith Roberts, ERASERHEAD) in his childhood home in Brooklyn, NY. When we first see Joe, we’re not sure if he’s a serial killer, the Unibomber or something equally sinister. Certainly, his burliness and unkempt demeanour easily leads us in that direction but we quickly learn that Joe is a contractor of sorts. His job is to rescue girls and young women from human traffickers. His work often involves inflicting brutality on the bad guys and his weapon of choice to do that is a ball peen hammer. Joe is paid well for his efforts but he lives his life in the shadows, careful of who is watching him and who knows what he does. Upon returning to New York after completing a job in Cincinnati, Joe gets a new assignment: Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), the 13-year-old daughter of a state senator, has disappeared and an anonymous tip reveals that she is being held at a private brothel in the city. Joe rescues the girl but when her father is reported to have committed suicide, he finds himself tangled up in a deadly conspiracy that leads right to the governor’s mansion.

YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE is written and directed by Scottish filmmaker Lynne Ramsay, whose last feature film was WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN in 2011. Very loosely based on the 2013 novella of the same name by Jonathan Ames, Ramsay took the spirit of Ames’ story, stripped it down to the bone and re-made it into her own. Unfortunately, a few important-ish items have been left out (such as why this senator and his daughter) but don’t worry if you haven’t read the book as it won’t stop you from following her version along. The book also deals more with Joe’s past, which Ramsay alludes to in flashbacks of Joe’s traumatic childhood and his stint as a soldier in Iraq during the Gulf War. These flashbacks give us insight into why Joe is who he is and why he does what he does.

Although the film is somewhat violent, Ramsay cleverly puts distance between the viewers and the action, showing the carnage through security monitors, a cracked mirror or even just off screen where we can’t see it yet we know that it’s happening. The effect makes it impersonal, much like Joe feels when he’s delivering his brand of justice. Oscar nominee (PHANTOM THREAD) and Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood has created an ethereal and oft-times discordant score that perfectly fits the film’s haunting atmosphere. The film’s song choices are absolutely inspired so listen carefully!

YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE is the type of film that will sit on your brain long after the lights come up in the cinema. Definitely go see it and check out the book too!

Watch the review recorded on Facebook Live in RTHK Radio 4’s studio on Thursday, August 2nd at 8:30 am HK time!

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