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With: Joaquin Phoenix, Judith Roberts, Ekaterina Samsonov, John Doman, Alex Manette, Frank Pando, Scott Price, Alessandro Nivola, Dante Pereira-Olson
Written by: Lynne Ramsay, based on a book by Jonathan Ames
Directed by: Lynne Ramsay
MPAA Rating: R for strong violence, disturbing and grisly images, language, and brief nudity
Running Time: 90
Date: 04/13/2018

You Were Never Really Here (2018)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Crimes at Midnight

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The Scotland-born Lynne Ramsay returns with her fourth feature film in a long 18 years. You Were Never Really Here is no less dark and brutal than her other works, but it's also a welcome film noir for our modern times. Her remarkable debut Ratcatcher (2001) was something of a coming-of-age story set in a garbage-strewn Glasgow. Her even better follow-up Morvern Callar (2002) told the story of a road trip taken by two women in the wake of death. A long time passed before the controversial We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011), a movie I could not get behind because of its uneasy combination of message-mongering and exploitation.

Based on a novel by Jonathan Ames, the mesmerizing, forlorn You Were Never Really Here is Ramsay's first film about a grown man, one who has passed through the world and still found only darkness. Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) is massive, lumpen but bulky and strong. He wears a colorless hoodie over a mane of long hair and a gray, scraggly beard that hasn't seen a trimmer in a year. He moves like a zoo animal, trapped and anguished, but with a certain grace and beauty. He seems to have survived some kind of childhood abuse and then a horrifying stint in at war. We see these things only in the briefest of flashbacks, emphasis on the word "flash." They arrive like unwanted intrusions in Joe's otherwise sinister day.

Joe works as a kind of hitman or problem solver. He lives with his mother (Judith Roberts, who was, believe it or not, in David Lynch's Eraserhead). She drives him crazy, but he dearly loves her. As the movie begins he's wrapping up a job, disposing of a woman's necklace and other articles in a hotel room. He's contacted by a senator (Alex Manette) and hired to find the senator's young daughter, Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), who has disappeared and is now likely being held prisoner at a brothel. Taking his time and attaining entrance to the establishment and armed with little more than a ball-peen hammer, Joe finishes the job without too much trouble.

Ramsay shows this sequence with an unsettling effect. It's mostly shown through surveillance cameras, with an old record playing throughout the house. But the time isn't precisely chronological. There are cheats in the cuts, jumping ahead or back in time, to tell the story more clearly. Ramsay doesn't bother to change the music; it jumps and stutters with the cuts. It's very clever and quite effective, like an unreal horror show.

Trouble begins after the rescue when the senator suddenly "jump" off of a high building, and everyone Joe knows starts to die. Joe himself escapes after brutally beating a thug to death. During another powerful sequence, he questions a wounded gunman, and then lays down on the floor with him, holding hands, to await death. The trouble all leads back to the governor (Alessandro Nivola), who apparently likes young girls and counted the senator's daughter as his favorite. It's not hard to guess what happens next.

Indeed, the overall, arching plotline here is an old one, going all the way back to the noirs of the 1940s: a professional criminal gets in over his head. But Ramsey blankets You Were Never Really Here with a woozy daydream fabric, moments that seem to have come in-between rational thoughts and are more like impulses or intuition. The clever editing and Jonny Greenwood's haunting score are two important tools in Ramsey's belt, helping her achieve this singular effect. This old story doesn't feel nostalgic and doesn't seem dashed off for pure entertainment purposes. It feels like it's here for a reason; it's about suffering, and continuing to get by. It's something that, especially in these dark times, all of us, even the good ones, can relate to.

Lionsgate released the film on Blu-ray, and it features an exceptionally crisp picture, even if it's an unflashy film; it's meant to draw viewers in more than it's meant to pop. Greenwood's score is nicely highlighted. Sadly, the disc contains no extras, other than a handful of trailers for other Amazon Prime feature films. Hopefully that won't stop people from catching up with this extremely strong, unforgettable film.

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