Cinematic Releases: A Waking Nightmare: You Were Never Really Here (2018) - Reviewed

You Were Never Really Here (2018) is a film about the people who slip through the cracks of life. 

Those individuals who were witness to horrors and tragedies that changed them just enough so that they never quite fit in with the rest of society. Humans crave balance and synchronicity and when those things are taken away, the anxiety and existential dread starts to creep in from the edges. Joaquin Phoenix plays one such poor soul, a man named Joe who is suffering from extreme post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) due to his past occupation as an FBI agent.

Joe is a shell of a human being, a zombie shuffling his way around struggling to appear normal. His new vocation is as a hired gun and he is infamous for his brutality when executing his missions. He is hired by Senator Albert Votto (Alex Manette) to find the his missing daughter who has been kidnapped and sold to a child sex ring. The film follows Joe around in his search for the abducted child.

The standout feature of this film is the incredible editing and the way it depicts Joe's shattered perspective. He is prone to having flashbacks and they are inserted into the narrative at jarring points, flashing in with loud sounds and fleeting snapshots of incredibly unsettling imagery. The way they are utilized is similar to how jump scares are used in horror films, and it has the effect of startling the viewer in turn putting them in a similar head space as Joe. Everything feels like a fever dream and it's difficult to figure out if what you are seeing is actually happening. This ties into the title of the film, because Joe is so dissociated with his surroundings that it's almost as if he was never really there at all.

This film also has some of the best sound design and music in recent memory with these aspects playing almost as big a part in the storytelling as the editing. Jonny Greenwood's haunting glitchy electronic score is augmented with harsh noise and overwhelming environmental sounds. Just like the visuals, the music is all chopped up, starting and stopping at odd points, and then dropping out completely at times to highlight the ambient sounds.

The beard. 

Phoenix puts in a mesmerizing performance as a man who is a ball of rage wrapped around a weeping child unable to deal with either extreme emotionally. There are shades of his off-kilter performance from Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master (2012) another film where he portrayed someone suffering from PTSD. He is an unreliable narrator and the events are shown through his distorted worldview, not unlike seeing one's reflection in a broken mirror.

You Were Never Really Here is a deep dive into the suffocating world of someone's personal hell. It's not a feel good film, and there is no redemption arc in sight. However, in between all the misery, there are truly beautiful moments as well, perhaps rendered more beautiful because of the utter despair that surrounds them. One must hold on tightly to these glittering jewels least they are lost again in the darkness.

-Michelle Kisner