You Were Never Really Here

Apr 21, 2018

An intense urban thriller about a contemporary social outrage, trafficking.

You Were Never Really Here

Grade: B+

Director: Lynne Ramsey (We Need To Talk About Kevin)

Screenplay: Ramsey, based on book by Jonathan Ames

Cast: Joaquin Phoenix (Walk the Line)

Rating: R

Runtime: 1 hr 29 min

by John DeSando

“I want you to hurt them.” Senator Votto (Alex Manette) to Joe (Joaquin Phoenix)

A Quiet Place is currently the only quieter film than Lynne Ramsey’s You Were Never Really Here. Both have a smattering of dialogue; both use Cinema’s trump card, visual imagery, to convey meaning.  In this dark, urban thriller, lack of dialogue really doesn’t matter because the consequences are mostly in Joe’s ball-peen hammer weapon. A traumatized Gulf-War Vet and ex FBI agent, he is prepared for his job as a hit man rescuing sex-trafficked young women.

At no moment are we fully aware of Joe’s traumas because director Lynne Ramsey lets us incrementally explore his abused past, from parental to spousal to multiple war hurts. Although her flashbacks are minimal and swift, we know enough and thankfully see little enough.

After accepting the job to find a NY Senator’s daughter among the traffickers, Joe is remarkably successful, shedding little blood, at least for the careful camerawork of Tom Townsend, which sharply gives images or moves away from them leaving our imaginations to do the heavy lifting. Joe’s success is short-lived after the senator is murdered, and Joe loses the daughter.

He furiously pursues the abductors, giving us chances to see inside his mind about how his mother, Afghanistan, and trafficked girls haunt him. While he appears to have regrets, mostly he is tormented by thoughts that he might not succeed this time.

Don’t be surprised if you notice touches of Mean Streets, Taken, and and Hitchcock. The good news is that Joe’s intentions are partly pure, albeit salve for his conscience about war. At any rate, Ramsey has created a memorable assassin and another strong case against trafficking.

John DeSando, a Los Angeles Press Club first-place winner for National Entertainment Journalism, hosts WCBE’s It’s Movie Time and co-hosts Cinema Classics. Contact him at