If you were going to write a list of who are some of the best actors working today, there’s no shred of doubt that Joaquin Phoenix would definitely be very high up on it. When you look over his entire career over pass 30 years, it’s not hard to understand why. Having starting off his career as a child star (which he did under the name during that period as Leif Phoenix) in the ’80s by starring in films like SPACE CAMP, RUSKIES and PARENTHOOD), Phoenix successfully made the transitioned into adulthood as actor with roles in the ’90s/’00s with acclaimed turns in major Hollywood/indie films like TO DIE FOR, SIGNS, LADDER 49, HOTEL RWANDA, BUFFALO SOLIDERS, TWO LOVERS etc. Plus he even earned himself Oscar nominations for his roles in the films WALK THE LINE and GLADIATOR. However its really his phenomenal work over the pass 8 years (THE MASTER, INHERENT VICE, HER, THE IMMIGRANT etc.) that have really cemented Phoenix as one of today’s greatest living actors. 2018 has been a huge for him in particular due to starring 4 wildly different films this year alone. One of which is acclaimed WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN writer/director Lynne Ramsey’s latest film YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE.
Based on the novel of the same name by Jonathan Ames, the film tells the story of Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), a brutal ‘hired gun’ whose job is to track down and rescue trafficked young girls and return them to their families. In between his work and looking after his elderly mother (Judith Roberts), Joe has thoughts of suicide due to being haunted by awful experiences that happened to him during his time in the Gulf War, working as a FBI agent and the violence that was afflicted on him by his father when he was a child. One day Joe is hired by local politician Senator Albert Votto (Alex Manette) to help find his daughter Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), who has been kidnapped and sold into a brothel somewhere in the city. Not long after he rescues Nina, things to begin spiralling out of control for Joe and he soon discovers that Nina’s kidnapping is part of a much larger conspiracy that involves another politician Governor Williams (Alessandro Nivola). Now Joe has to decide whether to continue to do his job and set things right with his violent skills or be consume by the ghosts of his tragic past.
I think that it’s fair to say that YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE is a film that I have been very excited to see for quite a while now. After receiving massive positive critical reception at the Cannes film festival back in 2017 (which it also won the awards for Best Actor for star Joaquin Phoenix and Best Screenplay for writer/director Lynne Ramsay), it immediately shot up to the top of my list of most anticipated films. Now over a year for it since its world premiere, YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE has finally be released in cinemas. Did the film manage to live up to its hype? Well, I can tell you right that it definitely did that’s sure. Even though I haven’t read the original Jonathan Ames novel that it’s based on, I still found this to be an absolutely captivating, gripping and superbly made thriller. If any other filmmaker had made this film they probably would have approached it in a pretty straight forward manner but under the direction of Lynne Ramsay, it’s a far more riveting experience since she approaches the story as a gritty and psychologically complex character study than the standard glossy action film. In fact I would say that it’s more in the vein of films like TAXI DRIVER and DRIVE than something like TAKEN. Ramsay did such a terrific job with how she both crafted this film from a writing and filmmaking standpoint. Her direction was incredibly intense, the script was hard-hitting but surprisingly subversive, there are set pieces that are brilliantly staged and I loved how she grounds the story in reality as much as possible. Plus she also knows how to bring the absolute best out of her actors with their performances and she has truly great collaborator with her film’s lead star Joaquin Phoenix.
Whenever you watch a character actor like Joaquin Phoenix in a film, you know for certain that he is going to commit 110% to his role and his turn here in particular is no exception. Phoenix gives an absolutely powerful and truly layered fantastic performance as ‘Joe’. He really was able to put us the audience into the mindset of the character of ‘Joe’ and how the events of the story affect him on a psychological level. Even though he is a man who is driven by duty to help and save the innocent, ‘Joe’ is also troubled and suicidal man who is being consumed by his own personal demons (which we see very quick flashbacks of his past throughout the film). It’s no surprise at all that Phoenix won Cannes Film Festival award for Best Actor. Plus he has a good onscreen rapport with his co-stars like young newcomer Ekaterina Samsonov (who was incredibly impressive in the challenging role of ‘Nina Votto’) and Judith Roberts, who was very believable in the role as ‘Joe’s Mother’. Also on a technical front the score by Jonny Greenwood was phenomenal, the sound design was extremely well done, the use of songs was great and the ending was memorably haunting. Now even though there were a lot of things that I loved about the film, there were a few little aspects that I found to be flawed. Even though the script by Laura Ramsey is extremely well written, there were parts of the story that I wish that she explored a little bit more. I could say which but that would go into spoiler territory. Plus I also felt that a lot of the supporting cast were very underused in their roles (Alessandro Nivola, who I thought in particularly was wasted as ‘Governor Williams’) and I wish it was a little longer as well.
Overall despite some small issues I had with it, it doesn’t change the fact that YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE is a still a truly superb, thrilling and thought-provoking film that knows how to keep its audience riveted throughout its entire running time. While it definitely won’t be for everyone since this is more of a dark and psychological character study than the possible straight up action film that it could have been (Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2011 film DRIVE is the closet film that I can compare YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE to) but if you go along with it, hopefully you’ll see why I found it such a compelling experience as well. Writer/director Lynne Ramsey and star Joaquin Phoenix created something really special with this film, so there’s doubt in my mind that I definitely worth checking out for sure. It’s definitely a film that lingers with you long after you have watched it.
Review by Bede Jermyn