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Movie Review: You Were Never Really Here

Perhaps it doesn’t mean much since it’s only April, but I see a fair amount of movies and You Were Never Really Here is my favorite movie I’ve seen in 2018 so far.

It’s hard to really describe the plot, and I think this is a movie one should go into knowing as little as possible, but a short summary would be that Joaquin Phoenix plays a deeply traumatized Marine (maybe?) vet turned contract killer who is assigned to extract a young girl from a trafficking ring. We join him on his brutal and disastrous journey.

I say “brutal”, but the film doesn’t indulge in hyperviolence. It reminds me of Green Room in that the violence we do see is graphic (it made me turn away and I’m a seasoned horror fan) but brief, and we don’t see most deaths directly on screen, but instead see the after-effects. I’m someone who much prefers movies that do this, because what we can conclude as an audience is often much more brutal than whatever you could achieve with good visual effects. Plus, since much of the movie works as a commentary about action and revenge flicks, having the film not be a constant bloodbath works better.

But don’t let that make you think it isn’t hard to watch, because it is. I brought my hand to my mouth in shock several times during the screening and gasped once or twice as well, and found myself shaken by the subject matter, despite it being a well that many movies, not to mention terrible episodes of shows like SVU, have gone to before. We all know sex trafficking exists, and we all know children are pulled in to it, but without showing you much the movie slaps you with the true horror of it.

There’s also beauty in the movie. This isn’t surprising considering that it’s Lynne Ramsay, but she is truly at her best her. There are loving, lingering shots: on Phoenix underwater, on a green jellybean, on a girl wiping a car window, on hands being held. And there are little visual asides that add interest and depth: a bunch of dead birds, a woman with a black eye observing Phoenix as if spotting a fellow traveler, and a group of tourists seemingly reminding him he actually exists in the world. A lesser movie wouldn’t indulge in any of these things, but I’m so glad Ramsay does. Despite these asides, the movie is very short, though it doesn’t feel it: the tension makes scenes seem to last forever, and I mean that in the best way. Speaking of tension, I couldn’t get away with not mentioning Jonny Greenwood’s score: it’s terrifying and helps keep you on the edge of your seat throughout.

I really can’t recommend this movie enough, with the caveat that it’s very upsetting. Ramsay doesn’t exactly make movies with high rewatchability value! But if this sounds like your kind of movie, see it in the theaters if you’re able to. It’s worth it.