When Jonathan Ames wrote You Were Never Really Here it seemed he intended it to be adapted for the big screen. The novella has an engaging story of a traumatized war veteran who earns a living tracking down missing girls, who willingly takes a job that escalates out of control. It is also a narrative that suits Lynne Ramsay’s cinematic style. The director’s films frequently involve children and the themes of grief, guilt and death, which all feature prominently in the novella. Unfortunately, however, Ramsay’s execution has resulted in a film that is overly fragmented and perplexing.
Ramsay’s use of vivid visuals worked well in We Need to Talk About Kevin. Vibrant flashback images shown of the atrocities committed by the title character are striking and memorable. The distinct image of Kevin (Ezra Miller) drawing an arrow and rapidly firing it from his bow I remember even to this day. The audience also sees the protagonist’s childhood and recent past in You Were Never Really Here. Recollections are made by Joe, played by Dante Pereira-Olson as a child, of the domestic violence he was subjected to. It provides background as to how adult Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) has become unfazed by brutality. There are also flashbacks displaying incidents that occurred whilst Joe was in the army and working for the FBI that add cause for his personality. Unfortunately, these appear a little too often which creates a confusing structure and it isn’t initially clear what these scenes are supposed to add.
Given what Phoenix’s character has suffered, his appearance in this film is justifiable though not entirely pleasant. His hair and beard are long and unkempt not to mention his overweight build which represents a man who does not take pride in himself and has somewhat low self-esteem. Even his yellow toenails seem to serve as an analogy of the filthy world Joe lives in. Phoenix’s performance is versatile, there is often humility displayed which strengthens his moments of violence and rage, but he also shows distress and the experience of regret well. However, at times it is not apparent to the audience why he acts the way he does particularly towards the ending of the film where his actions lose their captivating quality.
Ramsay often focuses on actions rather than dialogue and though it has been compelling for central characters in various films, it isn’t here. With the rest of the cast having minimal screen time it is difficult to become absorbed in the film. Some actors seem underused including Ekaterina Samsonov, who plays the missing Nina, and Judith Roberts as Joe’s mother who has a sincere relationship with her son which I would have liked to have seen more of. Even Alessandro Nivola who carved out interesting supporting performances in The Neon Demon and Ginger & Rosa is reduced to a speechless bit part.
Nuance, apart from crude action, becomes emphasized in Jonny Greenwood‘s score. It is a stark contrast to the lavishly eloquent music in Phantom Thread, which wonderfully complements the aesthetics of that film. Greenwood’s sounds do match the nature of You Were Never Really Here with a soundtrack that is offbeat and conveys a feeling of bewilderment. Even though Greenwood’s score complements the film’s tone, it is hard to become engaged in these pieces of music.
There is some initial intrigue into how the plot develops but because pacing is slow and it isn’t clear what intentions Ramsay had when making this film, our interest in the film gradually subsides over the film’s runtime. Unlike the bigger picture that forms by the end of We Need to Talk About Kevin, You Were Never Really Here is much too incoherent and never fully resolves elements of its plot by the film’s close (which is also baffling and arouses more questions than it gives answers).
Though I commend Ramsay for her frequent experimentation in non-linear storytelling, her work in You Were Never Really Here isn’t her best. Her use of vivid imagery has proven to be effective in previous films but experimentation gives way to overindulgence within You Were Never Really Here, resulting in an unnecessarily convoluted narrative. Ultimately, this effort presents itself as more of a collage than as a film which isn’t surprising given that Ramsay initially studied photography. Despite moments of excellent shot compositions- in particular during a scene that occurs underwater- and certain bursts of artistry, You Were Never Really Here evades any sense of meaning beyond the surface level that may be ascribed to the film.