Beautifully brutal 'You Were Never Really Here' tries too hard

Joaquin Phoenix plays a damaged hero with a hammer in Amazon's meditative, arty noir thriller.

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
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Richard Trenholm
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61st BFI London Film Festival - Headline Galas, Strand Galas and Special Presentations
BFI London Film Festival

If you're a fan of aging Hollywood stars bulked up and smashing skulls -- who isn't? -- you're in luck. 

"You Were Never Really Here", backed by Amazon and starring a monstrously thickened, bushy-bearded Joaquin Phoenix, is one of a couple of new films that cross arthouse with grindhouse for a meditative exploration of trauma, violence and snapping bones.

Directed by Lynne Ramsay, "You Were Never Really Here" follows Joe, a traumatised ex-soldier who makes a living rescuing missing girls. Dragged into a sordid conspiracy, Joe picks up his favourite hammer and set off to rescue a senator's daughter.

The plot, adapted from a novel by Jonathan Ames, proceeds on familiar film noir tracks. But in the hands of Ramsay and cinematographer Thomas Townend -- coupled with Phoenix's committed performance and Jonny Greenwood's haunting score -- it's far from a typical action movie. Joe and his world are explored with beautifully austere and near-abstract expressionism, lingering in near-hallucinatory fashion over his preparation for and recovery from barbarous acts rather than over the violence itself.

61st BFI London Film Festival - Headline Galas, Strand Galas and Special Presentations

Joaquin Phoenix transforms into a damaged loner in "You Were Never Really Here".

Alison Cohen Rosa

Phoenix makes a physical transformation into the looming, bushy-bearded, taciturn Joe. This bruised bruiser is the latest in a long tradition of damaged loners lost in the twinkling lights of an unforgiving society, a tradition stretching from the western to film noir. The line continues through movies like "Le Samouraï",  "The Driver", "Leon",  "Drive" and even "Blade Runner 2049", in which the lone wolf hero is literally given the same anonymous, cypher-like name as Phoenix's Joe. 

This cinematic tradition of men with no name continues in another 2017 movie, "Brawl in Cell Block 99", which played at the just-ended London Film Festival, alongside "You Were Never Really Here". In "Brawl", Vince Vaughan is also bulked up to become a close-mouthed, bone-snapping noir avenger. Both movies aspire to be more than exploitation flicks, which largely means Vaughan and Phoenix spend a good portion of both movies staring into space and walking ... really ... slowly.

"Brawl in Cell Block 99" is a simpler film, with a largely static camera and less stylised cinematography. "Here" is more intense in its discordant photography, editing and music. The inside of Joe's head is a harsh, jangling, noisy place, and so is his film. 


Vince Vaughan transforms into a physical force of violence in "Brawl in Cell Block 99".

BFI London Film Festival

When the tension inevitably comes to a bloody head, "Brawl" revels in every snapped bone and crushed cranium. "You Were Never Really Here", however, presents its action in a tantalisingly  elliptical way, reflecting one brutal hand-to-hand struggle in a mirror and lingering more over the aftermath of a shootout than over the actual fight. One sequence depicts Joe fighting his way through a house by showing the security camera feed flicking between empty stairwells and hollow hallways to give only glimpses of the savagery unfolding in the house, both building the tension of the moment and evoking Joe's emptiness.

As powerful as this method of showing the action may be, it also distances us as the audience. I'll take it over the wince-inducing "Brawl in Cell Block 99", but it doesn't help the film's clinical tone. I found "Here" a hard film to connect with.

The film tries really, really hard to make Joe sympathetic, giving him not one, not two, but three traumatic past events to flash back to. But he isn't motivated by love for his wife like Vaughan in "Brawl". He doesn't discover the pleasure of a normal life like Jean Reno in "Leon". He doesn't even have a cool jacket like Ryan Gosling in "Drive" (and "Blade Runner 2049). Yes, Joe loves his mum, but he's also a walking collection of red flags. He spends his time playing with knives and ostentatiously doing tai chi in a public sauna. In the real world, he'd be the guy who grunts really loud deadlifting in the gym and is, like, really into swords.

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Still, it's a more blunt and honest depiction of a post-traumatic life than you often get from this kind of lone noir samurai movie. Joe is a damaged man in a world of pain, not a noble ascetic living a pure life in a venal city. But the film is only concerned with his trauma up to a point.

The taciturn loner at the centre of "Drive" may have been a fantasy borne of watching too many Steve McQueen movies, but at least his redemption comes from human contact while violence is something forced upon him. For Joe, his capacity for pitiless brutality almost appears as a social good. His traumatic past isn't something for him to try to move past, but something that helps him do the terrible things the world requires.

Many critics have already hailed "You Were Never Really Here" as a masterpiece -- the Metacritic score is 88 at the time of writing -- but I couldn't shake the feeling it was trying too hard. Films like "Leon" and "Drive" at least know they're creating a escapist fantasy hero in a fantasy world. That's what the stylish clothes and cool music are all about. Meanwhile "You Were Never Really Here" strains for profundity, with mixed results. A tooth removal in unblinking close-up brought groans from the audience at the screening I attended, while a scene involving a dying last man and the song "I've Never Been To Me" prompted giggles.

"You Were Never Really Here" opens in theatres in February 2018 and will be available on Amazon Video at some point.

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