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Review: You Were Never Really Here

Saw You Were Never Really Here at Angelika Film Center earlier today, and I’ve spent the past few hours struggling to articulate what I think about it. It feels unfair to compare it to other, similar movies… but it also feels unavoidable.

Pairing an unapologetically pulpy premise with an art house/avant-garde visual style is reminiscent of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, while the overarching plot (a deeply traumatized, mentally unstable man fights to liberate a young girl from sex slavery) lives in the long, long shadow of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver—and, like many of its fellow residents (Light Sleeper, Bringing Out the Dead, Rolling Thunder), it never quite manages to bottle the magic that made Travis Bickle such a captivatingly complex character. Paul Schrader’s script discloses just enough about its enigmatic protagonist’s backstory to make us question whether anything he says is actually true; he’s a mystery, a “walking contradiction” that appears to have emerged fully formed from the stygian sewers of New York City. You Were Never Really There, on the other hand, peppers the narrative with flashbacks that are simultaneously too concrete to be ambiguous and too frustratingly cryptic to be revelatory.

If it sounds as though I dislike the film… I really don’t. On a technical level, it’s nearly immaculate; director Lynne Ramsay crafts a palpably haunting atmosphere that perfectly complements the quiet intensity of Joaquin Phoenix’s performance, elevating the copious scenes of brutal (yet tastefully depicted) violence by underscoring them with inappropriately cheerful diegetic music. I simply wish it had found a more even balance between its minimalistic presentation and thematic ambitions.

[Originally written April 6, 2018.]

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