ibbi’s review published on Letterboxd:
For anyone that may have feared for Lynne Ramsey’s career after the dramatic stories that surrounded her exit from the Natalie Portman starring western Jane’s Got A Gun, furthermore anyone that feared the direction in which her career was heading after seeing her attached to that project in the first place… You Were Never Really Here is a relief to behold on all fronts.
None of Ramsey’s stark embrace of grimy reality (a hallmark of her work ever since Ratcatcher) has been sacrificed, nor her attempts to probe the troubled depths of the human mind that have so concerned her since Morvern Callar. Truth be told as a chronicling of a tortured psyche this may be her most harrowingly effective effort to date. Working in collaboration with editor Joe Bini, who helped her make We Need To Talk About Kevin such a psychologically anguished experience, Ramsey has once again found the way to paint her portrait through visuals. Maybe more accurately, the pitch perfect marriage of image and sound, the jarring shifts between past and present, the ghostly echoes and pained howls that hover throughout the movie take you right into the brain of our central character.
Indeed, there’s no monologues to help you understand this man, no long, detailed detours into his past, just brief, precise glimpses at the horrors that have twisted and torn his soul, and left him the man that he is. It’s a wonderfully cinematic character study in which Ramsey is aided so greatly not only by Bini, but by Joaquin Phoenix, as is to be expected by this point. There aren’t many actors over the last 20+ years who when you watch them on screen have so repeatedly in so many different ways made you question their sanity. Phoenix is a master of it, and from the first scene till the last it’s almost uncomfortable watching him, his brooding physicality, the flitting, skirting, unpredictable emotions, the addled nature with which he makes his way through the world. There is dialogue in this movie, some of it is not incidental, a lot of it is sort of tough to make out, but it honestly barely matters because he and his director are both expressing so much without the aid of words.
It’s that which makes this movie such a memorable experience. So many people have likened it to Taxi Driver, but the real key difference between the two movies is the way in which they’re told. To say You Were Never Really Here is like Taxi Driver is less accurate than saying it’s like that blistering final act of Scorsese’s movie stretched to feature length. A movie in which you are wondering what is going on inside this mans mind as he unleashes his fury upon those he determines to be deserving. The magic of it all is how after a relatively slow start, in which the ugly, distressingly bleak mundanity with which it presents this mans existence threatens to be repellent, suddenly as man and girl are sat on a bed, a towel over her head, and the news on the TV, proceedings are suddenly sparked to deadly life, and all the way through to the finale the movie never relents, keeping you guessing as to what the hell is going on inside of his mind, and out in the world, and never allowing a moment of psychological clarity.
It is that sort of thing, that command of her medium she has that gives her the ability to tell a story, and/or to probe a mind in an almost purely visual way that Ramsey does pretty much without peer in mainstream cinema. Hopefully we’ll have less waiting to do before she gets to prove that again.