If I had watched this movie in 2018, it would have been my favorite film of the year. There’s something about this Taken meets The Professional in the style of Drive revenge thriller that made it impossible for me to look away. Was it Lynne Ramsay’s incredible vision? Joaquin Phoenix’s relentless devotion? The charming lens in which we view this depressing tale; a lens that wants more than anything for Phoenix’s character, Joe, to just be happy? Whatever the reason, this movie is a no-holds-barred beautifully brutal, brutally beautiful story of a man on a mission. You Were Never Really Here.
In the opening minutes, we learn that Joe is a hitman. He lives a quiet and violent life of taking people out for money and taking care of his elderly mother. Balancing those lives has never been a problem until something goes wrong and he becomes a man on the run. From that point on, this movie is much less a Liam Neeson action-thriller and much more of a slow-burn character-study think-piece; oddly enough, that’s when the film gets truly exciting. The moment the film kicks into top gear is when he’s assigned to rescue a politician’s daughter (enter Taken comparisons) and we see Joe humanized more so than when we see him care for his mother. The latter of which is equally lovely as they sing together and look out for one another but taking care of one’s own mother and a stranger are quite different– Joe’s unconditional adoration for the girl he rescued is what makes this film truly special.
While even that’s not entirely unique (Man on Fire), there are moments throughout this film that stand it apart from all the rest. One such moment is when Joe shoots an intruding hitman in the chest. During the hitman’s dying moments, Joe gets him water to ease the suffering. The hitman takes Joe’s hand as they both lay on the floor, and sing the lyrics to a familiar song as he drifts into death. When a movie makes you tear up over a character that you don’t know — a character that’s, for all intents and purposes, a villain — you know it’s on a-whole-nother plane of existence.
The heart and soul of the film, though, is Joe and Nina (the aforementioned rescued politician’s daughter), which actually gets much less screentime than I could have imagined. However, this film’s subtlety is its armor; it’s meditative, methodical, and moving because of it. It takes its time and does nothing without purpose. The slow pace of the film allows you to spend more time asking questions like “Why is this happening?” versus the “What…is happening?” of quick-cut modern movies.
One such question is “Why is this film called You Were Never Really Here?” After wondering throughout the entire film, it occurred to me that the reason is directly reflective of pace and tone of the film. With such a quiet story about a quiet man, who is going to remember him after his elderly mother is no longer there? As a hitman, the people who come in contact with him are either sworn to secrecy or dead; aside from Nina. This is why her role in his life is so important to him as she is the closest thing he could ever have to a legacy of any kind. Through that lens, I think the film is even better in retrospect.
In conclusion, You Were Never Really Here I think is best described as Drive meets Leon: The Professional. It’s a slow-burn arthouse picture about a hitman whose greatest fear is living a forgotten life without love or an impact. Through Nina, that becomes possible but only if he can be successful in saving her and sending her back to a life that facilitates peace. The question of “Can that be possible after everything she’s been through?” is something that the film necessarily doesn’t answer, but gives you enough clues throughout watching that allows you to think of an answer yourself. I’m not sure why this has such a low rating on Prime Video but I guess it’s because of the ambiguity of it all; some people like a bow on top of their conclusions. I’ll side with the critics on this one.
As always, thanks for reading and I’ll see you soon