Joaquin Phoenix stars in an incredible movie about an unstable veteran with a tendency for violence and a twisted moral compass, sadly this isn’t that movie. You Were Never Really Here is strangely similar in plot to two movies, Taxi Driver and The Master, the movie I reference just a moment ago. What is different about You Were Never Really Here? It’s bad. . . well the whole movie isn’t bad, Joaquin Phoenix is phenomenal as always, and the cinematography is great besides some weird choices I personally dislike, like “CCTV footage.”
This movie really want’s you to think it is this generations Taxi Driver, I mean a similar quote from a reviewer is even on the movie’s poster. You Were Never Really Here is soundly not Taxi Driver though. Everything that makes Taxi Driver great is missing here, besides the acting I suppose, but the brooding atmosphere, tight story, and important character development are noticeably missing from this film. The plot is almost a total ripoff, Joaquin Phoenix plays a veteran with past traumas, Joe, who has taken it upon himself to save young girls from the underage sex trade, however he only does so for hire. The difference between these movies is in the subtlety and consistency.
This movie bashes you over the head with Joe’s problems, he has PTSD, and he’s suicidal, and he’s needlessly violent, and he’s paranoid, and he’s cold, and he’s ruthless, and this, and that, etc. Where the movie fails though is in keeping with the promises that Joe will act in accordance to these character traits. If he is suicidal should’t we maybe see him being reckless? If he has PTSD shouldn’t it affect his actions at least once? Maybe since he acts paranoid shouldn’t he be really anxious and uneasy? Well he is none of those things, he simply acts as a hero character, he saves the girl, loses her, and then saves her again. Nothing about his personality affected the outcome of this movie.
This movie contradicts itself multiple times throughout, but to keep this short I’ll only look at two. Many actions through the movie conflict with Joe’s established character, but it’s an inaction that was the most confusing to me. During his first rescue of the main girl he kills all these goons in this brothel, including the “patrons,” and eventually rescues the girl. During his small, frankly uninteresting murder spree Joe coincidentally frees another girl trapped in the brothel, and then proceeds to leave her there. When I first saw this I was a little confused but figured “oh he really does just treat this as a job and was only willing to rescue this one girl,” which is a pretty cold way about going about his “work.” Later in the film though we learn that his employer is dead and the girl is taken away from him. He should have no incentive to rescue this girl again, yet he does.
The movie has not shown Joe to be a kind man, he is rude to almost everyone, including his (pointless) mother at times. So if there is no reason for him to rescue this girl then why does he? I assume it’s because they didn’t know how else to end the movie, but maybe it is because he actually is kind. If that’s the case though, why the hell did he leave that other girl in that brothel earlier then? It makes no sense, he can’t be selflessly kind and brutally cold. And no there is no reasonable event that should have changed his personality between the girl being taken and his decision to re-rescue her, his mother dies but that shouldn’t make him more kind, if anything it would make him colder. It could have been really interesting if we thought he was going to rescue the girl again but actually he was just out for revenge for his mother and once he killed the villain he leaves the girl there.
The second contradiction is much less important, and really more of a general movie gripe but still detracts from the movie and is distracting. After he rescues the girl for the first time they go to a motel to wait for her father. After a while the clerk comes and opens the door and has his brains immediately blown out onto Joe. Goons enter the room holding Joe at gunpoint and take the girl. Joe beats one up, kills him, and leaves. My gripe is that if the goon so readily blasted the motel clerk why the fuck didn’t he just blow Joe’s brains out too? It makes no sense, and he only survived because he needed to for the story to progress. It’s extra insulting because it’s sooooooo easily fixed as well, simply have the goon not kill the motel clerk, just have him hide in the corner, now we don’t think that this goon is in the business of actually murdering people and we can believe he wouldn’t just shoot Joe for whatever reason.
Over this movie was just boring and frustrating, if you want to watch a very similar movie that is about three-thousand times better watch either The Master for a similar performance by Phoenix or Taxi Driver for a suspiciously similar plot and an even better performance by DeNero. You Were Never Really Here, is a disappointing boring movie that manages to waste half of it’s already short runtime on character development only to contradict it every time it could be interesting.