There’s so much to love and admire in You Were Never Really Here and it’s a film I dearly wanted to love. Unfortunately it suffers from one of my pet peeves in modern film-making – a lack of volume control. Now, after watching this I realized that this partly may be a problem with my TV set up, but I watched via TV and on my Kindle and the same issue occurred. After a bit of tinkering I was able to make things better, but the damage was already done. What is this problem I speak of? Essentially, the soundtrack is too loud, but the vocal mix is too low. What this means is that I’m constantly turning down the volume when the music is playing only to frantically turn it up for the dialogue, completely taking me out of the experience.
It’s a pity, because if this hadn’t been an issue for me then this would likely be one of my favourites of the year. There are few better visionary directors working today than Lynne Ramsay and here she is partnered with a rejuvenated Joaquin Phoenix. The film frequently looks spectacular, Ramsay’s visuals and the jarring editing and directing interweaving wonderfully with Jonny Greenwood’s superb score. On the surface, it’s another one of ‘those’ films – a guy with a gun goes through a bunch of bad guys to save an innocent soul, but in truth it isn’t really interested in the violence or the action, nor is it even really interested in the plot. The plot is simple to the point of irrelevance – Joe is a killer who specializes in saving kids. He is tasked with saving the daughter of a politician who has somehow been sucked into a child sex ring. Those in charge of the sex ring fight back. That’s it, a story you’ll see three times this year in Liam Neeson movies alone.
For Ramsay, it’s an excuse to peel back Joe’s damaged brain and see what’s inside, a soldier suffering from a life of abuse and bad shit – PTSD from warzones and a violent, abusive upbringing have turned him into a suicide fantasist whose dreams, reality, and flashbacks all wrestle for control. Normally these characterizations would lead to hackneyed scenes where the audience isn’t clear what is real and what is not, and while there is a touch of this to what Ramsay does, the more sudden and quick outbursts are more obvious to the viewer, giving us a greater impression of the level of breakage within Joe. The only other character worth speaking of is Joe’s Mother played by Judith Roberts (who somehow at 80-something years old is more beautiful than almost any other woman you’ll see on screen this year, apologies but it’s something I kept thinking while watching), who needs help with even the most simple task and is seemingly the only thing keeping Joe breathing. Nina, the girl Joe is tasked with rescuing, is nothing more than a maguffin – a blank canvas who is apparently so numb to the point that she doesn’t care if she is rescued or if the people around her are killed.
The violence in You Were Never Really Here is never front and centre – in fact much of it is off-screen or viewed at a glance. There’s a scene right at the end which could be shocking for some – I’ll leave it up to you to decide if you feel its resolution was a cop-out or not, but either way you get the impression that the future will not be as beautiful as the day Joe and Nina comment on. It’s another notch for Ramsay, but for me she hasn’t made the film which will define her and allow her to reach her full potential.