Film Review: “You Were Never Really Here” — Lynne Ramsay’s Dark Materials

In You Were Never Really Here, Lynne Ramsay’s themes of alienation, violence, guilt and redemption are once again present, albeit in a more frenetic form than before.

You Were Never Really Here directed by Lynne Ramsay. Screening at Kendall Square Cinema, Coolidge Corner Theatre, and AMC Loews Boston Common 19.

Joaquin Phoenix and Ekaterina Samsonov in “You Were Never Really Here.”

By Peg Aloi

Despite making only four films in her 20 year career, Lynne Ramsay is widely seen as one of the 21st-century’s most gifted filmmakers. Her first feature Ratcatcher, set in a grimy Glasgow slum during the garbage workers’ strike in 1973, was plenty dark but also funny, lyrical, and haunting. Three years later, Morvern Callar, starring a young Samantha Morton, portrayed an equally dark yet oddly upbeat story about a young woman whose boyfriend’s suicide opens up unexpected possibilities for her future. In this visually stunning film, Ramsay also established her iconic use of sound to foster mood, atmosphere, and emotion.

The filmmaker’s career stumbled somewhat through the next decade as she tried for several years to bring Alice Seybold’s best-selling novel The Lovely Bones to the big screen (the version that did emerge in 2009, directed by Peter Jackson, was seen by many critics as a somewhat too romanticized and light-hearted adaptation of Seybold’s harrowing novel of the rape and murder of a teenage girl). In 2011, Ramsay’s American set story We Need to Talk About Kevin (co-written with her husband Rory Stewart Kinnear) stretched beyond her Scottish roots with a cast that included Hollywood stars Tilda Swinton and John C Reilly. Telling the story through flashback and flash-forward, Ramsay paints a bleak portrait of a woman (Swinton) whose solitary life is a shadowy haunted shell of her previous successful career and satisfying marriage. Everything changed when her son committed an act of mass violence. Kevin, played by stunning newcomer Ezra Miller, is a bad seed, a sociopath, and while it might have been tempting to craft him as a metaphor for what’s wrong with America, Ramsay skillfully uses grandiose imagery to tell a story that is both universal and very personal. Ramsay also made use of her knack for casting roles in unexpected ways but with ultimately superb results. Even Reilly, a good actor who I’m simply not very fond of, is perfect in his role as Kevin’s hapless father.

In You Were Never Really Here, Ramsay’s themes of alienation, violence, guilt, and redemption are explored once again, albeit in a more frenetic form than before. Ramsay’s characters commit crimes, but punishment tends to be self-inflicted (as in Ratcatcher) or nonexistent (as in Morvern Callar); in We Need to Talk About Kevin, Kevin is punished as society dictates, but the punishment he inflicts on his mother is worse. Her latest effort depicts crime and punishment as a daily, lived reality. As Joe, Joaquin Phoenix portrays a traumatized war vet working for a private agency that tracks down young girls kidnapped for sex trafficking. There’s a suggestion that Joe saw related atrocities during the (unnamed) war and this dictated his career choices. But his work as a mercenary seems to be a calling that goes beyond justice — it is literally what keeps him alive.

Expect 'You Were Never Really Here,' with its relentless brutality and aching sense of wonder, to seep into your very marrow.Click To Tweet

Living with his elderly mother (Judith Roberts, of Orange is the New Black and, many years ago, Eraserhead), Joe’s caregiving is gentle and lit with naughty humor. He meets with his boss, a kindly but gritty soul named John (character actor John Donan), and receives his latest assignment while lying on the office sofa, eating jelly beans and speaking softly under his breath about how he likes the (rare) green ones. When he finds one, he crushes it beneath his fingers and eats it slowly. Visual details like this echo Ramsay’s morbidly intimate stylistic touches from earlier films (Kevin crushes rainbow-colored cereal on the kitchen counter while plotting evil, and Morvern burns a microwave pizza while disposing of her boyfriend’s corpse). Joe’s daily routine is an oddly mundane one: his trips to the hardware store for tools of the trade (a hammer, duct tape) take on chilling meaning once we see him in action.

Joe’s most recent assignment goes awry when a young girl he rescues is abducted again from his rescuing arms. Played by Ekaterina Samsonov, who gives a subtle but electrifying performance, thirteen year old Nina is a waif straight out of a Jessie Willcox Smith illustration. Her numbed eyes betray a short lifetime of hurt and perversion: it is as if she has literally nothing new to see or experience. She lets Joe take command and, when the two are separated, it’s as if a chasm opens up in the ground. Trying to get Nina back, Joe is thwarted and threatened, and he must reinvent his protocols. His normal anxiety and frequent episodes of post-traumatic stress increase. Joe seems to be losing everything that is dear to him; in the process, his sense of self disintegrates further. His demons loom larger; it’s not clear if he’ll be able to surmount the forces that are overtaking him. His descent into despair is rendered with frank, tensive beauty.

Not for the faint of heart, Ramsay’s story of young girls abducted by powerful men nods to other recent works with similar themes, such as the 2011 Australian film Sleeping Beauty, or the 2013 Israeli thriller Big Bad Wolves (minus their fairy tale symbolism). Phoenix’s portrayal of Joe, a man beset with visions of doom yet gifted with a curiously animalistic survival instinct, is a white hot tour de force from one of the best actors working in the world right now. Expect this film, with its relentless brutality and aching sense of wonder, to seep into your very marrow.

Peg Aloi is a former film critic for The Boston Phoenix. She taught film and TV studies for ten years at Emerson College, and currently teaches at SUNY New Paltz. Her reviews also appear regularly online for The Orlando Weekly, Cinemazine, and Diabolique. Her long-running media blog “The Witching Hour” can be found at

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