You Were Never Really Here

Movie review by
Michael Ordona, Common Sense Media
You Were Never Really Here Movie Poster Image
Bleak but effective thriller is brutally violent.
  • R
  • 2018
  • 90 minutes

Parents say

age 18+
Based on 2 reviews

Kids say

age 15+
Based on 2 reviews

Did this review miss something on diversity?

Research shows a connection between kids' healthy self-esteem and positive, diverse representations in books, TV shows, and movies. Want to help us help them? Suggest a diversity update

A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

After the deep darkness of the film's journey, it ends on a note of hope. 

Positive Role Models & Representations

Main character essentially a vigilante who has no problems at all with brutally murdering bad guys; difficult to consider him a role model. He does exhibit determination, fearlessness, and his own code of justice.


Violence, threat of violence pervade the film. The bulk of it involves the main character's use of a hammer to kill his targets, brutally and repeatedly. Many acts of violence occur just offscreen. Murder victims discovered. Characters shot, including one whose face is blown off at close range. One tortured to death before viewers arrive on the scene; another has his throat slit wide open (also before camera arrives). Theme of child abduction, forced prostitution/child rape. Underage girls are kept in a fancy brothel; one character traumatized by her captivity there. 


All sexual content in the film is related to rape/violence; see "Violence" section for more.


Not constant, but "f--k" and variations on it are used.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that You Were Never Here is a bleak, violent film about a vigilante (Joaquin Phoenix) who exacts justice on those who kidnap girls to be forced into child prostitution. Expect brutal, bloody scenes in which he uses his hammer on the kidnappers, as well as shootings (one up close) and evidence of torture. The violence is intended to be realistic and upsetting, and it is. There's also strong language, including "f--k." It's all very cinematically and emotionally effective, but the movie is far too intense for most younger viewers.

User Reviews

  • Parents say
  • Kids say
Adult Written byGlaswec January 1, 2021

Interesting and disturbing film - surely should be 18 rating

Having watched this I am mystified as to why it is rated 15 and not 18. The subject matter (sexual exploitation of children), recurring themes and imagery of se... Continue reading
Adult Written byZiggy Stardust October 5, 2018

You'll wish you weren't either!

I love pheonix's work in general, however , in this case he must've taken this one as a favor owed to someone in Hollywood as his talents were wasted... Continue reading
Teen, 16 years old Written bytoby woby February 15, 2019

Very thought provoking

This film is truly unique and a well made psychological thriller! Of course, this is not for little kids. It has brutal violence and has themes of child sex tra... Continue reading
Teen, 14 years old Written byHenry Hill15 April 2, 2018

What's the story?

In YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE, Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) -- a veteran who suffered trauma both during war and as a law-enforcement officer afterward -- now makes his living rescuing kidnapped girls and making the perpetrators pay, violently, with a hammer. Joe lives with and cares for his elderly mother (Judith Roberts) and is haunted by disturbing memories of their family's past. When Joe is hired to find the daughter (Ekaterina Samsonov) of a state senator, the case takes a sharp, violent turn that might be more than he can handle. Adapted from Jonathan Ames' novella, director/writer Lynne Ramsay's dramatic thriller won awards at Cannes for Phoenix's performance and Ramsay's writing. 

Is it any good?

Ramsay is at the height of her filmmaking powers here, maximizing the impact of her brutal story. Phoenix is ideally cast as a force that's unstoppable until the big case breaks his momentum. You Were Never Really Here is anything but your standard noir thriller. It's not focused on solving a big mystery, and it doesn't have any of the other trappings of the genre. And despite its savagery, it's definitely not about fetishizing violence. This film is about the dark, twisting journey of Joe's soul as he tries to function in a world without justice. Phoenix's committed, unadorned work feels authentic. You feel you're with him, sensing all along that this can't turn out well. And as the kidnapped girl, young Samsonov is extremely effective. She keeps you guessing as to exactly how she's coming out of this tunnel of horrors. 

Ramsay won a screenplay award at Cannes for the film, and the script is admirably pared down, if a touch confusing at times. But her directorial command is even more impressive. Her collaboration with cinematographer Thomas Townend (known for music videos), editor Joe Bini (known for documentary work), and veteran sound designer Paul Davies results in a distinctive experience that's rife with texture and emotion. The outstanding score by Jonny Greenwood (There Will Be Blood) veers from electronic beats to treated guitars to piano bass notes that are struck so hard you can practically feel the hammers on the strings. Ramsay brings all these elements together to take you inside Joe. She shows us exactly what she wants us to see, and when. After we've witnessed Joe in action, we skip the next round of fatal beatings to move on to what's most important. The filmmaker of We Need to Talk About Kevin is as unsentimental in her approach as her main character is in his. She explores the life of a person who would do what Joe does without getting bogged down in talk or set pieces. It all feels real, and it makes a very strong impression. 

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about Joe's actions in You Were Never Really Here. Is this type of vigilante justice understandable? Excusable? Is Joe a sympathetic character? Why or why not?

  • How does the violence in this film compare to what you might see in an action movie? Which has more impact? Why?

  • What genre does the movie fall into? Why do you say that, or how can you tell?

  • Do you think there's hope for the characters in the end?

Movie details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love thrills

Common Sense Media's unbiased ratings are created by expert reviewers and aren't influenced by the product's creators or by any of our funders, affiliates, or partners.

See how we rate

Streaming options powered by JustWatch

About these links

Common Sense Media, a nonprofit organization, earns a small affiliate fee from Amazon or iTunes when you use our links to make a purchase. Thank you for your support.

Read more

Our ratings are based on child development best practices. We display the minimum age for which content is developmentally appropriate. The star rating reflects overall quality.

Learn how we rate