Review: Violence haunts in ‘You Were Never Really Here’

Joaquin Phoenix plays a deeply disturbed hitman in writer-director Lynne Ramsay’s wounded nightmare

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

In the chaotic, deeply disturbing “You Were Never Really Here,” violence leaves heavy psychological wounds that rattle from the inside out.

Writer-director Lynne Ramsay, whose last film was 2011’s sharp, haunting school shooter examination “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” paints an impressionistic picture of violence and the disturbed mind. What it lacks in straightforward narrative structure, it makes up for in chest-level punch, and “You Were Never Really Here” lands like a blow to the sternum.

“You Were Never Really Here” stars Joaquin Phoenix as a hitman.

Joaquin Phoenix transfixes as Joe, a traumatized war vet who works as a hitman rescuing underage sex workers. To him, violence is a matter of fact, as normal as brushing one’s teeth, but Ramsay isn’t interested in celebrating or glamourizing violence the way, say, Nicolas Winding Refn did in “Only God Forgives.” Using quick cut montages, which depict Joe’s visions and flashbacks in harrowing detail — particularly in cuts to a young Joe with a plastic bag around his head — she relays the horrors in his mind and makes viewers feel their lasting effects.

Adding to the film’s frightening, caustic mood is Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, who lends his first film score outside of his work for filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson. Using found sounds and string stabs, Greenwood gives the film a jarring, on-edge soundscape, the aural equivalent of the fractured disconnects inside Joe’s mind.

Because of the film’s subject matter, there is a temptation to compare it to “Taxi Driver.” But “Really Here” is more abstract in its approach, “Taxi Driver” deconstructed to its core elements. It’s not soon or easily forgotten.

(313) 222-2284

‘You Were Never Really Here’


Rated R for strong violence, disturbing and grisly images, language, and brief nudity

Running time: 95 minutes

At the Landmark Art Theatre