You Were Never Really Here

Critics Consensus

Bracingly elevated by a typically committed lead performance from Joaquin Phoenix, You Were Never Really Here confirms writer-director Lynne Ramsay as one of modern cinema's most unique -- and uncompromising -- voices.



Reviews Counted: 248

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Reviews Count: 0
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Average Rating: 3.5/5

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Movie Info

A traumatized veteran, unafraid of violence, tracks down missing girls for a living. When a job spins out of control, Joe's nightmares overtake him as a conspiracy is uncovered leading to what may be his death trip or his awakening.

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Critic Reviews for You Were Never Really Here

All Critics (248) | Top Critics (38)

  • [T]his intoxicatingly stylish work is all over the place, a hot mess at times so ravishing it sends shivers down to the toes. Unfortunately, it's also at times just plain crass and silly.

    Dec 26, 2018 | Full Review…
  • In the end, there's no question that what you're watching is a masterfully-made movie, albeit one that's easier to admire from afar than up close.

    Dec 26, 2018 | Rating: B- | Full Review…
  • Enough information is provided to let us discern the rudiments of a conventional plot - but our understanding of this remains tentative, hypothetical, shadowed by the possibility that all is not as it seems.

    Sep 7, 2018 | Rating: 4/5 | Full Review…
  • 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.

    Apr 20, 2018 | Rating: B+ | Full Review…
  • You Were Never Really Here is not a film that particularly wants you to "like" it. But with its highbrow talent and arty flourishes, it all but dares you to admit that you disliked it. Challenge accepted.

    Apr 14, 2018 | Full Review…
  • [Phoenix], the mumbling master of smug self-indulgence, dons another layer of Emperor's new duds to favor us with a performance as subtle as a fart in a sardined elevator and twice as odiferous.

    Apr 13, 2018 | Rating: 0/5 | Full Review…

Audience Reviews for You Were Never Really Here

Both First Reformed and You Were Never Really Here use sly genre subversion to act as commentary on what kinds of movies the audience associates with these kind of haunted men, their arcs, and the nature of violence. Subverting audience expectations is in and of itself not necessarily a better option. You can have unexpected things happen but the narrative that happens after needs to be compelling, and if possible, unavoidable in hindsight (Game of Thrones is good at this). By the same notion, the finale of Breaking Bad was pretty easy to anticipate but that's because of how well written the storytelling trajectory was pointing to its natural end. I can tell a tense father-son reconciliation story and then if I end it with a meteor wiping out the Earth all of a sudden, well that's unexpected but that doesn't make it better storytelling. What helps elevate both movies is that the subversions are thematically related to the relationship between violence and vengeance, absolution and atonement, and the audience and our desires with these films. You Were Never Really Here is built as a hitman thriller based on Jonathan Ames' novel. Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) is a hired gun who specializes in rescuing young women. He's hired to find the missing adolescent daughter of a senatorial candidate. He investigates the underbelly of sex trafficking to save this little girl, but larger forces are at play and will make Joe suffer gravely for interfering with their wanton exploitation. The average audience for You Were Never Really Here has been steadily fed a diet of these kinds of movies, from the artful (Luc Besson's The Professional), to the pulpy (The Long Kiss Goodnight), to any number of hollow, nihilistic video game-styled murder fantasies (Hitman, a thousand straight-to-DVD movies). We're expecting men of action who are ruthlessly efficient and clever when it comes to their killing. We're expecting stylish merchants of death who leave behind a heavy body count with swagger. That's not what brilliant Scottish writer/director Lynne Ramsay (We Need to Talk About Kevin) has in mind at all. She takes the iconography of the hitman thriller and turns it into an expectation-smashing existential character study, but not just of its disturbed main character but also for the audience and our relationship to these movies. We expect remorseless killing machines that turn death into splashy and cool tableaus. These movies aren't so much key on mediation and reflection, beyond the standard "reap what you sow" adage. Much of the violence is kept off screen or purposely denied to the audience. I'm trying to remember if we even see Joe kill anyone on screen. The infiltration of the sex trafficking organization hops between fixed security angles, edited together in a dissonant manner, where the last shot doesn't fully line up for a smooth edit, leaving a half second. The effect is one that's knowingly alienating and challenging. When Joe does unleash his violent skills, it's rarely given a showcase for entertainment. This is a movie that doesn't celebrate its violence. There's a moment where Joe lies on the ground beside a mortally wounded bad guy. They exchange a few cordial words, he procures some vital information, but then Joe stays with the man and the two sing a song together. It sounds bizarre when written out but it's a moment that really stuck with me. After everything, these two men can find a small sliver of humanity between them to share. Even the final confrontation, the big climactic set piece of any other movie, ends with a shoulder shrug, as if Ramsay is saying to the audience, "Why would seeing all that be cathartic?" For Ramsay, the focus of the movie is on the man committing the acts of violence rather than how stylish and cool and cinematic those acts of violence can be. This is the one area where I feel a longer running time could have better helped her goal. I think Ramsay might be the best filmmaker we have for triptych narratives. 2011's We Need to Talk About Kevin is a startling and insightful movie that opens up the guilt of a woman whose son grew up very badly, jumping around time periods, using a repetition of images to provide visual stings and associations. You Were Never Really Here does similar labor, establishing our strong silent protagonist through glimpses of a troubled past, from a childhood with an abusive father and a mother he would have to save, to incidents during military service and police investigations that reminded Joe about the depravity of others, in particular the ability to exploit and dehumanize women as disposable property. Ramsay offers discorded images and brief flashes and asks the audience to put together the pieces to better understand Joe as a man propelled and haunted by his bloody past. However, at a slim 89 minutes, the audience could have used more time and opportunity to better develop and analyze this central character. The pieces are tantalizing but I wanted more, and as a result I found Joe to be an interesting start to a character that was in need of more time and attention to transcend the boundaries of his archetype. I needed a little more from him and his world. There are several moments that quickly come to my memory, sticking with me because of the level of artistic arrangement or implication. Because Ramsay wants to take the Hollywood hitman revenge thriller and deconstruct it and provoke her audience and its desires for violence, there isn't much of a plot to this movie. I could literally spoil the whole thing with the following sentence: a man of violence is hired to find a missing girl, finds her, loses her, and finds her again at great personal expense. The movie is more of a poignant and intriguing exercise in our relationship to these kinds of stories. There are moments of beauty in the movie that took my breath away, like when Joe lowers a wrapped body into the depths of a lake, and with the shafts of light, the curls of hair, the small visual details, it felt like watching a living baroque painting. There are also several bizarre moments that stand out, like when Joe fantasizes about blowing his brains out at a diner while the patrons, and the blood-soaked waitress, go about their day. It's these little flourishes that make the movie stand above other hitman movie deconstruction exercises like George Clooney's overly solemn The American. It's not all tragedy and inescapable dread. Amidst Joe's tortured past and troubled future, there's a necessary sense of hope. You don't know what will happen next but you're not resigned to retrograde nihilism. Both First Reformed and You Were Never Really Here are slow burn indie character studies that ask their audience to question the movies they've been set up for. Schrader and Ramsay are deft storytellers who pair their visual gifts to the psyches of their damaged, haunted, and self-destructive middle-aged men. Hawke is phenomenal as Rev. Toller and Phoenix is suitably unsettled from a life of confronting predatory violence. Both movies have also stayed with me, though First Reformed I find to be the better developed, better executed, better acted of the two films. It's enough of a comeback for Schrader, whose last film I remember seeing was the laughably bad Lindsay Lohan "erotic thriller" The Canyons. These are two movies that aren't exactly the most accessible. Both challenge the audience to analyze the personal relationships with genre storytelling. If you have patience and an open mind, both First Reformed and You Were Never Really Here provide thoughtful and methodical examinations on genre, violence, and the visceral appeal of empty bloodshed. Nate's Grades: B

Nate Zoebl
Nate Zoebl

Super Reviewer

Okay. I liked bits of it. Other bits not so much.

Nicki Marie
Nicki Marie

Super Reviewer

Defying expectations with an atypical hitman thriller, Lynne Ramsay creates a surprising character study that benefits from an exceptional performance by Joaquin Phoenix. Full review on filmotrope. com

Carlos Magalhães
Carlos Magalhães

Super Reviewer


Normally when I feel like recommending a movie to someone, it's due to the fact that I feel it will either appeal to a specific audience or just please everyone on a board scale. Quite honestly, although I'll be praising this film as I go along, I'm not quite sure who the audience will be for this movie. You Were Never Really Here is based on the novel of the same name and while I haven't read it, I believe this film is a nice representation of it, as it's simply a great film overall. Yes, the imagery is bizarre and the performances throughout the film may seem a little too realistic that they become off-putting, but these are all things that I found to be fascinating about it. If you're up to the task of watching a movie like this, here's why I think it's terrific. You Were Never Really Here follows a man in Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) as he is both haunted by his past and trying to straighten out his current life. Tasked with a job of looking for missing girls and taking down anyone in his path, this brings up memories that he's not too fond of. Told in a linear manner while also flashing back through weird visuals or direct scenes, this is a film that asks you to be entranced by it from start to finish. If you think imagery is just imagery when it comes to a director trying to express certain emotions through the camera, rather than dialogue, then this movie definitely isn't for you. Joaquin Phoenix is magnificent as Joe and quite frankly probably the best I've seen from him in years. From his subtle facial expression when a scene with his mother is taking place, to the very notion that he truly cares about everyone in his life, no matter how evil he may seem at times, Phoenix was able to present many emotions throughout the course of this movie. Not that I related to this character, but his thoughts on just wanting to do the right thing felt very relatable for many viewers to attach themselves to. From its visuals to its performances, I was blown away by this film, but this is where I draw the line of possible issues. You Were Never Really Here is the sort of film that gives you many amazing things, but also showcases a few too many depressing sequences and the visual storytelling gives you everything you need upon first viewing, at least in my opinion. This is a must watch movie in my eyes, but I can't see myself ever needing to revisit it. I also appreciate a film that's well-shot and well-edited, which is exactly what is provided throughout this movie, so that was an added bonus that had me applauding every few minutes. In the end, You Were Never Really Here is a fantastic piece of independent cinema and the perfect example of a movie that not enough people can get into or even come across, due to the overabundance of blockbusters in theatres these days. Whether or not you have read the source material that this film is based on, I highly recommend checking out this film if you can stomach a few brutal images, some very sad representations of the real world, and a huge wake up call throughout the final act that brought me to tears. You Were Never Really Here isn't for you unless you're into auteurist filmmaking like I am at times, but it's a great story to invest yourself in regardless, which is why when considering everyone,I think I nearly loved this movie.

KJ Proulx
KJ Proulx

Super Reviewer

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