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Joaquin Phoenix is unforgettable in the stylish “You Were Never Really Here”

Ever since the Cannes Film Festival last year, buzz has been building for Lynne Ramsay’s follow up to We Need to Talk About Kevin. The movie in question is You Were Never Really Here, and boy is it something. Opening this week, Ramsay has crafted something truly remarkable. Very much a cinematic cousin to Drive, this is the filmmaker putting her stamp on what otherwise could be a throwaway genre outing. Whereas a studio would have shaved off the rough edges and made this a Liam Neeson vehicle (not that those don’t have their own merits), here we have something far more offbeat. It’s also easily one of the three best films of 2018 so far.

The movie is like a lucid fever dream. IMDb describes it as such: “A traumatized veteran, unafraid of violence, tracks down missing girls for a living. When a job spins out of control, Joe’s nightmares overtake him as a conspiracy is uncovered leading to what may be his death trip or his awakening.” Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) is a man of few words, haunted by his past, living with his mother, but a master of bringing kidnapped girls home to their parents. His methods are brutal, but he’s ruthlessly efficient. As is always the case, a job goes wrong, in this case involving politicians and an organization ready to murder on a whim. This leads Joe to have to decided between giving up or going above the call of duty in order to do the right thing. Full of hallucinations, you may not be surprised by what ends up happening, but how it’s depicted is one of a kind stuff. Ramsay writes and directs this adaptation of the Jonathan Ames novella, with other cast members besides Phoenix including John Doman, Alex Manette, Alessandro Nivola, Dante Pereira-Olson, Judith Roberts, and Ekaterina Samsonov. The cinematography is by Thomas Townend, while the top notch score is by the finally Oscar nominated Jonny Greenwood.

I loved this film. Phoenix has rarely been better (as you’ll see below), while Ramsay crosses Drive, Taxi Driver, and her own sensibilities to create something truly one of a kind. It marches to the beat of its own drummer at all turns, from the Greenwood score to the editing and cinematography, not to mention Phoenix’s choices. Ramsay lets a dark undercurrent of humor run through it as well, which is like an added bonus. Once you get on its wavelength, you really get to appreciate it. If you don’t vibe with what Ames and Ramsay have created, it might end up off-putting, but I really hope that’s not the case. This deserves to be seen and heavily praised.

In a perfect world, You Were Never Really Here would be an Oscar contender. Any nominations are probably a long shot, but Amazon Studios should certainly launch a campaign. Efforts in Best Picture, Best Director (for Ramsay), Best Actor (for Phoenix), Best Adapted Screenplay (also for Ramsay), Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, and Best Original Score. Greenwood’s score definitely deserves Academy Award consideration in Original Score, while Phoenix is more than Oscar worthy in Actor. Don’t expect them to happen though. The flick is just a bit too weird for voters. I’d love to be wrong, but frankly, I simply don’t see it.

This is how I would rank Phoenix’s top ten performances so far:

10. Inherent Vice
9. We Own the Night
8. Buffalo Soldiers
7. The Yards
6. Gladiator
5. Walk the Line
4. You Were Never Really Here
3. her
2. Two Lovers
1. The Master

Honorable Mention: I’m Still Here, The Immigrant, Irrational Man, Signs, and The Village

This weekend, one of the year’s very best films hits screens when You Were Never Really Here opens up. If you’re a Ramsay fan or a Phoenix fan, you’re in for a treat. Just keep in mind how askew the view is here and you’ll be delighted. It’s cool, intense, surprisingly funny, and as a little bonus, very short. Whether or not the Academy warms up to it (and I sadly doubt that they will), you should. This is another really good Amazon Studios release, so seek it out and support it. Once you see it, you’ll understand why it’s among 2018’s top titles so far…

Be sure to check out You Were Never Really Here, beginning its theatrical run on Friday!

About Joey Magidson

A graduate of Stony Brook University (where he studied Cinema and Cultural Studies), resides in Brooklyn, New York. He contributes to several other film-related websites and is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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