You Were Never Really Here

Film, Drama
4 out of 5 stars
3 out of 5 stars
(7user reviews)
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Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

British filmmaker Lynne Ramsay returns with this concise, poetic and violent drama in which Joaquin Phoenix plays a troubled US war veteran

With this impressionistic and often daringly enigmatic thriller taken from a short novel by Jonathan Ames, British fimmaker Lynne Ramsay (‘Ratcatcher’, ‘Morvern Callar’) is back on top form with a vengeance – quite literally, though that emotion is not hers but part of the story. ‘You Were Never Really Here’ centres on burly, big-bearded, taciturn hitman Joe (Joaquin Phoenix in determinedly unglamorous mode), whom we encounter in the opening scene already carrying out a contract – though we never find out who’s the victim or what it’s all about.

In fact, Ramsay’s film gives mere visual and aural hints as to Joe’s backstory, motives and character. The briefest of flashbacks suggest he’s been in the military and the police, and that as a child he suffered a brutal father. But apart from seeing him carry out his work – his preferred weapon a hammer – all we know about Joe is that he lives with and cares for his elderly mother. Still, we do witness his dealings with a contractor, who lines up a job for him: to discover the whereabouts of and return to her politician father an underage girl abducted into sex slavery.

All this may bring to mind ‘Taxi Driver’, but Ramsay’s film is very different. Not wanting to distract us with the precise details of the storyline, or those of the world Joe inhabits, she focuses instead on his inner life. She uses Phoenix’s subtly expressive face and body language, a complex soundtrack, an elastic editing style and Thomas Townend’s wonderful cinematography to evoke his fragile, sometimes surprisingly tender, sometimes ruthless state of mind. The story occasionally takes its time over small moments – Joe singing along affectionately with his mother – but elsewhere it suddenly proceeds in rapid fits and starts, rushing through a series of deaths with barely a pause for breath. If one is left a little in the dark as to what’s happened and why, no matter, as the execution is so assured that one simply goes with the flow of striking, suggestive images. (Jonny Greenwood’s score also helps in maintaining the momentum.)

Wisely, Ramsay doesn’t linger or focus on the violence, but implies it through expert editing and composition. Accordingly, what might have been an almost unbearably grim trip into a sordid underworld of corruption, cruel exploitation and brutality does, against all the odds, have a solid underpinning of compassion. ‘You Were Never Really Here’ comes some years after Ramsay’s uneven ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’ and her aborted involvement with ‘Jane Got a Gun’ – making it a reminder of a very distinctive directorial talent as well as a hugely audacious, imaginative and strangely compelling movie.

By: Geoff Andrew



Release details

85 mins

Cast and crew

Lynne Ramsay
Lynne Ramsay
Joaquin Phoenix
Ekaterina Samsonov
Alessandro Nivola

Users say (7)

3 out of 5 stars

Average User Rating

2.9 / 5

Rating Breakdown

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This film is so focused on mood that it dispenses with any possible claim to intelligibility. For one thing, it’s literally unintelligible; Joaquin Phoenix mumbles his way so determinedly through every scene that it was necessary to rewatch segments with the subtitles on. The plot also manages to be both utterly cliched (how many hitmen with hearts of gold does the film world need?) and completely incoherent (why on earth would the villain go to such lengths, how could he possibly get away with it in an era of constant scrutiny, and why do filmmakers continue to peddle the myth that rich, privileged children are the ones most likely to be victims of sex rings?). Screenwriter/director Lynne Ramsay, who managed to squeeze all nuance and ambiguity out of We Need to Talk about Kevin, takes a similarly blunt approach to this story, which is about as subtle as the hammer that the main character wields. This is ponderous, hollow filmmaking that attempts to trick viewers into the impression that something profound is happening onscreen. If a viewer needs over-stylised cinematography to realise that, um, abusing children is bad, and, well, trauma is tough, then the film has indeed succeeded in setting the bar low.


This is a strange film. The plot is almost unfathomable. Maybe it works in the book but there is too much over-subtle unravelling in the film. The soundtrack of life noises like sirens blaring, screeching brakes, and ever-louder beats is unsettling to say the least! Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) is a war veteran who is often brutal and sometimes gentle -with his mother. His mind is unsettled with ghastly flashbacks to his childhood and the soundtrack mirrors that well. The cinematography is clever, sometimes lingering and others, pacey. Even with some good acting this is not an experience I will repeat.

What an ugly and crass bit of film making.Wall to wall violence.People's heads being smashed by a hammer.Women shot through the eye,man shot through the head.Blood and gore everywhere.Way too much violence.Chuck in child involved in sex.The lead actor just mumbles right the way through.The plot gets too confusing..The cliches are all there.He is a cold blooded killer that return home to his mother and becomes tender.Music and extraneous noise volume doubles to the main film volume. It is all so manipulative and one dimensional.The director does not seem to have a clue,in that it is part horror film,part violence,part romantic and part art house..What it really is can be described at violent nonsense..1 star

A stunningly inventive, lyrical portrait of Joe/Phoenix's alienated state of mind in an alienating New York City. You don't know what happens in what order due to his fevered mindset. This film has lot in common with Taxi Driver but there's also much that is Ramsay's own vision ably focussed by a great performance by Phoenix. Great interplay of music and images too as JK observes, assisted by Jonny Greenwood's fine soundtrack . If the Academy are to start to redress the criminal neglect of female directors, they could easily start by looking across the pond where we have the wonderful work of  Arnold, Barnard, Morley & Ramsay. Definitely one to watch again. 

The imagery of sound and vision is used to powerful effect here, and few actors do haunted and troubled better than Joaquín Phoenix - but it's perhaps just too oblique and alienating at times, although saved by a sudden and wonderful moment of unexpected redemption.

Knowing Joaquin Phoenix' discerning approach to roles, expectations were high. An intriguing film, which leaves you constantly trying to piece the puzzle together, in order to understand this odd and tortured man. The film leads you into a slight dark underworld of society, where an unlikely hero emerges. NO cookie cutter finish, no exaltations to be found. however a re-found belief in humans doing good, despite their own faults. Would watch again and again.


This is quite the arthouse movie. A middle aged, taciturn anti-hero who lives with his mother gets more involved in his everyday business than he'd like. It's quite dark, it's quite beautiful and it doesn't entirely make sense. Having read the book, I'm not entirely sure I'm on the same page as Lynne Ramsey with We Need To Talk About Kevin and, here again, I just don't think it's gelling with me. The performances are wonderfully subtle, characters are clear and defined and it manages to feel like an incredibly violent film when you actually see very little on screen. Apart from the inner conflict though, it didn't really seem to say very much and feels like a snippet of something bigger.