In You Were Never Really Here, Joaquin Phoenix plays a character named Joe. In his entire career, he has never played a Joe before, which actually makes sense; it’s hard to imagine the brooding actor playing the kind of simple everyman the name suggests. Here, the name is a bit of morbid irony. If his character in Lynne Ramsay’s violent psychological drama is an everyman, we are all in a lot of trouble.
Joe is a deeply traumatized war vet who makes his living hunting down and returning lost and stolen children to their rich, powerful parents. Usually, they ask him to punish those responsible—and not through the justice system. For each mission, he buys himself a new ball-peen hammer, which he uses to crush the skulls of the criminally depraved. Considering how he romanticizes and fetishizes his weapon—when he finds it in the hardware store, Ramsay’s camera gently presses in on it—you get the sense he would do it for free.
The film is structured a bit like a detective novel. We sense Joe has been doing this for years, but his latest case is different from the rest. He is hired by a State Senator (Alex Manette) whose pre-teen daughter has run away and, he believes, been conned into sex slavery. Joe takes the case and, with his well-honed mix of cunning and terrifying aggression, quickly saves her from her tragic predicament. But nothing is simple in politics, and soon Joe and the girl are in danger once again from an enemy he can’t ascertain.
Such a description might make You Were Never Really Here sound like a grisly little B-movie, but Ramsay’s filmmaking acumen and persistent focus Joe’s inner experience elevates it to fine art. Throughout, Joe is haunted by images of violence against children in his past. An act of kindness while serving overseas that ended in death comes back to him (and to us) in pieces. There are also more nebulous and powerful traumas. Images of Joe as a young boy in various states of terror and deep, terrifying whispers from an unknown adult cloud our heads, turning Joe’s profession into a psychological preoccupation rather than a means of paying the bills.
Focusing on a self-appointed vigilante out to save a young girl from the dark underbelly of new York,You Were Never Really Here will inevitably be compared to Taxi Driver, but, while many films have tried and failed to match the achievement of Scorsese’s early masterpiece, this one is good enough to earn the comparison.In both films, the lead performance is key. Phoenix, a specialist in playing tortured men, portrays Joe as a man who has retreated deeply into himself. His eyes betray little, and his body—muscled, hulking, and oddly-shaped—seems to hold secrets that he is constantly on the verge of exposing. Through physicality alone, Phoenix shows us a character who is both firmly in control of himself and deeply uncomfortable in his own skin. It’s riveting.
Understanding the movie, however, comes later. The viewer’s experience You Were Never Really Here hems so closely to Joe’s point-of-view that it can often be uncomfortable or, at best, confusing. Ramsay is determined to keep the plot secondary. The revelation on which the plot hinges is barely even audible, mumbled by a dying man. Many detective stories have asked us to let go of the plot and simply immerse ourselves in their worlds, but few have presented one as darkly violent as this one. It’s more lucid nightmare than film, just as terrifying and self-fulfilling as anything your subconscious could conjure.
You Were Never Really Here opens Friday at Landmark E Street Cinema.