'You Were Never Really Here' film review: Bold, subversive thriller upends action genre
If you took an action flick and accentuated all the quiet, humane moments between bloody fight sequences, the result would be the innovative mystery-thriller "You Were Never Really Here" (opening April 20 in additional select cities)
In short: A gun-for-hire's (Joaquin Phoenix) mission to find a politician's kidnapped daughter spins out of control. Judith Roberts, Ekaterina Samsonov and John Doman also star.
Writer-director Lynne Ramsay ("We Need to Talk About Kevin") has crafted something spectacular: an action story (packed with kidnapping, revenge and a conspiracy) that is really a dramatic, character-driven thriller. On paper, the framework of "You Were Never" has more in common with ridiculous shoot-em-ups like "The Equalizer," "Death Wish" or any movie where Liam Neeson is holding a gun on the one-sheet poster. This is a brutal film founded in violence, yet most of the action occurs quickly and often off-screen. "You Were Never" is firmly rooted in its protagonist - a soft-spoken but intense man entirely capable of brutality ... yet he's also a damaged and traumatized man on a mission.
Joe (Phoenix) defies of everything audiences have grown to expect from action film stars: he looks more homeless than heroic. While he's a veteran, Joe is more comfortable wielding a ball-peen hammer than some flashy pistol that impossibly fires more bullets than any magazine can hold. He doesn't look like a man on a chicken-only regimen complemented by CrossFit - Joe looks, for a lack of a better way of putting it, country strong rather than "I have a gym trainer" strong. But Phoenix carries himself with an intent and purpose. Joe's soft spoken nature belies an intense, tightly coiled ferocity that he unleashes with shocking speed and power.
But most important to his character: Joe, despite appearing overweight and slightly off balance, can easily dispatch armed goons standing in his way ... but he takes no pleasure in these popcorn flick moments. He is tortured by flashing traumatic images from his past. Unlike other silly action flicks, Joe is not invulnerable - he accumulates physical injuries (allowing physical violence to actually mean something in this story) while his mental state slowly erodes (once again, allowing violence to have a greater consequence).
Ramsay's direction and Phoenix's performance make clear "You Were Never" is less about the surface entertainment value of watching a hero kick ass - the film invests its time on the effects of said violence and its consequences on Joe. If anything, "You Were Never" speeds through the action sequences as if pushing past fight scenes to get to the moment where Joe has to internalize the aftermath, what is at stake and how it is wearing on his tenuous grasp on reality.
Final verdict: "You Were Never" seems like a contradiction of every action film convention - but in flipping the genre on its head, and focusing on its hero, Ramsay's film becomes a daring and bold upending of expectations.
"You Were Never Really Here" is now playing in select cities. This dramatic thriller has a running time of 89 minutes and is rated R for strong violence, disturbing and grisly images, language, and brief nudity.