An exhilarating case of a phenomenal actor and masterful director working in complete and utter sync, You Were Never Really Here—a team-up between Joaquin Phoenix and Scottish auteur Lynne Ramsay (We Need to Talk About Kevin)—is a rugged, wrenching genre film to be treasured.
The story of a military vet who supports himself and the elderly mother with whom he lives by tracking down missing children for mysterious clients, it’s a grim, tortured affair, one that steeps itself in the psychology of its damaged protagonist and, in doing so, continues Ramsay’s career-long formal and thematic preoccupations. It’s also the most intense movie you’re likely to see this year—a harrowing portrait of pain, psychosis, and the futility of using violence to purge one’s inner demons. Think of it as a Taxi Driver for the 21st century.
An adaptation of Jonathan Ames’ 2013 short story, You Were Never Really Here finds Ramsay once again revisiting subjects near and dear to her heart: traumatized kids, the desire to heal still-raw wounds, and the inescapable burden of sorrow and guilt. Its focus is Joe (Phoenix), a man whose agony is apparent from his first on-screen appearance—in a close-up of his face gasping for air inside a plastic bag. This auto-asphyxiation situation is self-inflicted and anything but erotic, and it’s followed by tantalizing glimpses of his hands burning a young girl’s photograph in a trash can (and an otherwise useless bible snuffing out the flames), and of his body moving through a hotel corridor, his head cut off by the frame, all of it set to the sounds of his whispered thoughts (“Say it!”). Performing his shady duty with efficiency, he’s a fragmented loner, distressed by unknown discord.
When we finally do get a glimpse of Joe, his dark-ringed eyes and long, unkempt, gray-tinged beard underscore that initial impression, as does his furious takedown of an assailant in a back alley during his escape from this motel. A taxi door lets us know Joe is in Cincinnati, but he’s soon back in New York City, visiting his aging mom (Judith Roberts) and then his handler John McCleary (The Wire’s John Doman), who gives him a new assignment: recover Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), the thirteen-year-old daughter of Senator Albert Votto (Alex Manette). Making matters somewhat easier, the whereabouts of habitual runaway Nina aren’t a secret: she’s been kidnapped and forced to work at a pedophilic brothel located inside a heavily guarded city brownstone. And according to the vengeful Votto, Joe has been hired because of his reputation for being “brutal.”
An angry recluse intent on rescuing a preyed-upon girl from the bowels of sexual-exploitation Manhattan hell—it’s a traditional set-up, part Scorsese’s aforementioned 1976 classic, part Paul Schrader’s 1979 descent-into-porno-depravity, Hardcore. Yet while You Were Never Really Here employs a familiar narrative spine, Ramsay infuses it with a potency all her own. As is her wont, the director cares little for exposition, conveying everything of value through startling imagery. The sight of Joe sitting in the dark on his mother’s bed as she falls asleep, or of him later gently caressing her curled-toes foot, speaks volumes about his protective instincts and deep compassion. And jarring, out-of-the-blue cuts to flashbacks—of Joe as a young boy, hiding in a closet, sometimes with his head wrapped in a plastic garment bag; and of images of dead mouths and twitching feet from Joe’s military service—impart, in expressionistic blasts, his entire abused-son and PTSD-wracked soldier backstory.
Moreover, a single wayback shot of his mother cowering under a table as a man’s midsection enters the foreground, his hand holding a hammer, tells us precisely why Joe, a lost child himself, employs a ball-peen hammer to carry out his own dirty deeds. Attempting to transcend his nightmarish past by mimicking his persecutors, Joe proceeds on his mission with compulsive fury, and Ramsay’s direction echoes—and enhances—his drive, leaping forward in time at sudden, disorienting intervals, skipping over any narrative details that are otherwise inferable from the action at hand. Ramsay employs tight, askew compositions that obscure as much as they show. And yet in that obliqueness, be it during Joe’s traumatic memories or his current rampage, she imparts everything crucial about him, and the forces propelling him onward toward ever-greater horrors, as well as revelations about the conspiracy tied to Nina’s disappearance.
Ramsay’s unconventional approach is most apparent when it comes to Joe’s actual violence, which is either half-glimpsed, or which we see only the aftermath of, as the director cuts to Joe the second or two after he’s felled an adversary. It’s a strategy that speaks to You Were Never Really Here’s attitude toward aggro viciousness as an empty, unfulfilling affair; no matter how many men Joe bludgeons, he’s a figure of macho impotence, in search of salvation in all the wrong ways.
Her stunning visuals, including pans across cacophonous NYC traffic, express what none of Ramsay’s characters can, or will. And they’re married to a remarkable score by Jonny Greenwood (fresh off his Oscar nomination for Phantom Thread) that creates an unbearable atmosphere of mounting dread through electronic tones, percussive beats, natural urban-chaos noise and strident strings—the last of which are clearly modeled after Psycho, another thriller about a devoted son caring for his aged mother which, in fact, is watched by Joe’s mom (with Joe play-acting Norman Bates’ stabbing motions) early on in the film.
Running a swift 89 minutes, You Were Never Really Here is a maelstrom of madness, misery and wrath, and at its center is Phoenix, whose vehemence is downright chilling, and made all the more gripping by the hurt underscoring it. With minimal dialogue, Phoenix captures Joe’s psychological and emotional tumult in the way he stalks his environment, or stares silently at his targets—as in a late Taxi Driver-ish scene of him sitting in a car spying on a politician’s office. He’s a man apt to explode at any moment, and in any number of ways, be it him starting to laugh after using pliers to pull out a tooth from his bloody mouth (in a stunning single-take close-up), or bursting into tears as he slides to the floor and strips off his shirt to reveal his scarred, asymmetrical torso.
More than his volatility, however, it’s Phoenix’s portrayal of Joe’s haunted suffering that lingers longest. In perhaps the film’s most unexpected sequence, Joe confronts a home intruder he’s fatally shot in the stomach. Rather than demanding information before finishing him off (per cliché), Joe offers him a painkiller and then lays down beside him on the floor, clasping his hand and joining the man in a mumbly sing-along to Charlene’s “I’ve Never Been to Me.” Like a later underwater suicide attempt and the finale’s figurative resurrection, it’s a moment in which Joe learns that solace is attained not from death but from compassion. It’s a familiar lesson given unforgettable new life by You Were Never Really Here, a masterpiece of monstrous beauty and grief-stricken rage that burrows under your skin and into your head, and refuses to leave.