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Review: “You Were Never Really Here” Haunting

  When I watched the trailer, it appeared intriguing. The movie stars Joaquin Phoenix who tends to be an immersive actor. For me, he can be hit or miss but in the scenes I saw, he captured my attention. While the movie is dark and intense, the content not for everyone, the film had twists and turns I didn’t expect and powerful performances that were poignant and complex.

In the movie, Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) a combat veteran, is a hired gun who rescues trafficked girls. When not working, he cares for his elderly mother (Judith Roberts) in his childhood home in New York City. He also demonstrates post traumatic disorder, ritualized suffocation and graphic flashbacks to his time in the military. He carefully manages his job. His handler, John McCleary (John Doman) refers the clients and he has a middleman, Angel (Frank Pando) all in order to keep his home safe. When he discovers Angel’s son saw him coming home from a job, he tells Angel he can no longer use him.

McCleary has a new job for Joe, retrieving Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), the daughter of a senator Albert Votto (Alex Manette). The senator wants his daughter rescued discreetly but without mercy. Joe tracks her down, savagely deals with the men who have taken her. But things don’t go as planned. Joe ends up in danger along with everyone he knows including Nina.

While this film is dark, it is intriguing and incredibly immersive. The plot is complex and details are important. It is critical that the viewer pay attention. The plot is not straight forward, it is woven with flashbacks that inform the viewer about Joe’s nature and his past. Joe is not happy, it shows in his body language, in his self destructive behavior and in his desire for death. He regularly uses suffocation rituals to cope with post traumatic stress disorder. Flashes of memory show the character’s abuse as well as his past as a soldier and in law enforcement. The only time he appears happy is around his mother. What I found most compelling is most of the characterization is shown rather than the character telling us via dialogue. It is all in the actions within the film and kudos to the director, Lynne Ramsay, for bringing that to life.

Part of what makes the film so heartbreaking is the themes woven into the story. This is a film that deals with abuse, both physical and sexual and that is hard to watch at times. Joe’s redemptive arch is haunting because you’re never quite sure if, in saving the girls, he can also save himself as what he does is brutal and destructive. The losses in his life seem to almost break him. Equally powerful is Nina’s story arch and without spoiling the movie, her character is just as integral to the story as Joe’s.

While the themes are dark, what moves the story are two elements. The pacing and suspense are impeccable. You are never quite sure of the resolution and there are surprises within the plot that caught me off guard. The tension keeps you on the edge of your seat and pulls you through the movie right to the end.

The second element is the acting. Joaquin Phoenix is incredibly immersed in his character, believable and intense in every interaction. His portrayal of Joe makes you see all different sides of a complex character and helps you understand the motivations, why Joe does what he does and how ruthless he is in his pursuit of his job. He also gives viewers a real glimpse of what living with PTSD is truly like. That level of detail is important to the story.  However, Ekaterina Samsonov is a match for his acting. At age fifteen, this young actress plays her part brilliantly, allowing us to see a wounded, vulnerable young girl. Her lack of emotion at points in the film are just what the character requires to show the abuse she has endured. Without this contrast to Joaquin Phoenix, this story would not have been as significant.

It is slow in the beginning as it sets up for the core of the film and while I felt the memory flashes were an important character element, they did cause the story to be a bit disjointed at points. In addition, there is a lot of information shown and if you aren’t paying attention, you could lose bits of the story. Some of the plot was not explicit which means you’re never quite sure of all that is going on in the story. While most likely deliberate, the average viewer might tune out, not understanding all that is happening.  In addition, the film does have some graphic content, most especially dealing with the violence Joe carries out to rescue the young girls.

I would recommend this to anyone looking for a solid suspense with dynamic characters. The story could be chilling in some aspects and is difficult to watch at times. If you have been abused, this might be one to skip as the content can be suggestive but it is realistic in the subject matter and Joaquin Phoenix plays his character realistically struggling with post traumatic stress disorder. The ending is memorable and the actors brilliant. Young Ekaterina Samsonov is mesmerizing and will be worth keeping eye on for future roles.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 hammers

 

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