You were Never Really Here falls somewhere between a few well-worn movies released in recent years. The aging actor, the physical and brutal violence, the young girl melting the heart of stone, the cold vengeance – its been done before and in some cases better. Very rarely has it been done to the elevated level of this movie though and You Were Never Really Here does very well to treat the cliched aspects of the plot as seriously as possible.
Going a long way to ensuring this is the case is Joaquin Phoenix. Here he is bearded, bulky and looking his age. The fresh-faced man who troubled Russell Crowe in Gladiator is long gone and he even lacks resemblance to more recent fare like The Master. The look fits the role so well though, as he is clearly a capable man, searching for girls who have been taken and trafficked, and battering anyone who stands in his way in unflinchingly violent ways.
The build of this character is what makes the beginning of the movie so intriguing. We get a snapshot into who this person is. The way he can enter a building, systematically make his way through, searching and saving people as he goes, all silently and without mercy. In any other movie he would come across as a heroic avenger. Here he feels like a hulking presence, working through his personal demons while he beats people to a pulp. This is in stark juxtaposition to the other aspects of his life like caring tenderly for his aging Mother.
When the movie places this interesting character into the middle of a conspiracy, involving a politician, a young girl who needs saving and then a desperate chase to keep himself and the girl alive, the film becomes a gripping thriller. It helps that it doesn’t lean too far into the conspiracy either, never becoming confusing and you push on with Phoenix as he tries to unravel what he has become a part of.
The key is the young girl he has been sent to save. Played by Ekaterina Samonov, she isn’t the usual young rescued victim made famous in films like Leon or The Equaliser. She is broken by her ordeal, suffering from trauma and struggling to connect with anyone. Watching as Phoenix’s brute begins to unwittingly break down her protective walls is another great layer to the movie.
The first two-thirds drive you towards a fitting, blistering finale, where the conspiracy is unfolded and the villains get their comeuppance. Great scenes build to this, from personal attacks on Phoenix which send him spiralling through to the revelations which drive his direction. Which is why it feels so disappointing when both the conspiracy and the finale itself are dull and done within ten minutes. What begins as a suspenseful, almost suicidal mission to end it all gets a weak resolution (albeit one which does make sense) and leaves you wondering why the build was so good if the ending would be so abrupt and lifeless.
Overall, You Were Never Really Here introduces cinema to a fantastic Phoenix character, a complex avenging angel who is both layered and interesting. Add to this a gripping story which the character can fight through and you get a compelling and fascinating movie. Unfortunately, all of this is undone by an ending which lacks the dynamic finale the movie desperately needs.
Rating – 4
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