It’s fascinating how this film is both intricate, intense, poetic and sensual. A beautiful array of vignettes are tied together by Johnny Greenwood’s score and the whole film becomes almost like a piece of music, incorporating the diegetic clinks, bangs and thumps.
Blood and violence accompany the character's journey, but it never becomes the main focus. The world we never see, the one in Joe’s head, is in the foreground. The world which causes him to lean over the train track, almost letting himself go. He wants to free himself from the chains of the past and the horrible visions that haunt him. How can one kill so brutally and yet appear so vulnerable? The need to help, to save, to take vengeance, is the driving force behind this child-like being, who’s closest character is his mother. The purpose of saving someone urges him more than the internal instinct to stay alive. It’s a complex character study, as Joaquin Phoenix embodies Joe physically and mentally, creating deep layers that you can’t help and become infatuated with.
However, the film focuses so much on him and how he see’s life, that other characters very quickly become two-dimensional. They die left right and centre, and you can’t feel sympathy for any of them, just sit back and absorb it as quickly as it comes, becoming numb to the violence. Who is the antagonist in this story? The flashbacks can be disappointing because, as strange as it sounds, they reveal too much, and other times not enough. Some things are better left to the imagination, and this film fails to find the right balance. However, it’s all about Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) fighting his inner demons, his distorted reality, and his inability to connect .
‘You Were Never Really Here’ might refer to Joe's inability to be present, to feel the violence he inflicts, the people he murders. In many scenes, he acts as if he’s absent and his conscience lives in the past, but there seems to be no redemption for him. However, just as all seems lost, when our world begins to crumble, the people we try to help can become our saviours. And so in the end, the two damaged souls find each other and leave their shattered pasts behind them.
Overall, 'You Were Never Really Here' proves that a thrilling film does not need a plot packed with action. In this case, less is more, and it's strengths are poetic editing and the soundtrack. Dialogue is insignificant at times, because the visuals say it all, and writer/director Lynne Ramsay has proved it many times before.