The latest from writer/director Lynne Ramsay (Ratcatcher, We Need To Talk About Kevin), You Were Never Really Here is about a lot of things for such a seemingly single-minded, unspeakably brutal account of a New York-based enforcer-for-hire named Joe (Joaquin Phoenix, in yet another in a long string of measured, flawless performances). Joe’s specialties include patience, behavior observation, and storming into a situation—usually armed only with a ball peen hammer and the dead eyes of a shark moving in for the kill. Most of his assignments involve tracking down and rescuing missing girls, and he takes no pity on anyone involved in these abductions, leaving no witnesses to his path of blood and cracked skulls.
As is often the case for Phoenix, Joe is a very specific construction—he has a full, unkempt, face-obstructing beard; he often wears a hoodie to make him further anonymous; and he always seems aware of where the shadows (as well as a few surveillance cameras) are in any given place he is working. And while he tends to keep to himself, Joe is also a good son to his elderly mother (Judith Roberts), whom he takes care of with a great deal of affection in her small Brooklyn apartment.
Some of what we know about Joe’s past we can see around his mom’s house, but the most awful pieces of his life are glimpsed in his PTSD-sparked flashbacks that show a sickening childhood and more recent, mind-shattering experiences in combat. At times, the camera is so close to Phoenix’s face that we feel that director Ramsay is attempting to crawl into his brain, which is a place that is not safe to spend too much time as a casual visitor. So imagine his struggle to live in there all the time.
Based on the novella by Jonathan Ames, You Were Never Really Here begins as a character piece but rolls into its story when Joe receives a new assignment: to rescue the daughter of Senator Albert Votto (Alex Manette), who not only meets with Joe personally (which apparently is not Joe’s typical protocol) but encourages Joe to make his daughter’s kidnapper suffer. The reclaiming of underage Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov) from sex traffickers goes off relatively easy, but when Joe attempts to return her to her father, things begin to go sideways and key players begin to die, throwing Joe off his game in ways he’s not used to, while still trying to keep Nina safe.
In a sense (and Ramsay doesn’t do anything to hide the connection), the film is a nod to Taxi Driver by asking the question “What would have happened if Travis had become Jodie Foster’s guardian after he rescued her from a life of prostitution?”
As if attempting to match the piercing noise in Joe’s head, the film’s score comes courtesy of Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood (who has also scored the last several Paul Thomas Anderson films, including the recent Phantom Thread), and the combination of Ramsay’s sometimes surreal filmmaking and Joe’s broken mind makes it all feel like both a perfect artistic experience and a hypnotic drama. The film’s power comes as much from what it doesn’t show us (in the past and present) as it does from the viciousness we do lay witness to.
Ramsay is so good at giving voice to characters we rarely see on screen, and Joe might be the most perfect example of that in her filmography to date. You Were Never Really Here moves like lightening, with little time to think, take a breath or consider the horrors shown or imagined. As if that weren’t enough, it also has a bit to say about the deviant behavior of powerful men, quite effectively, I might add. It’s a harrowing work that probably isn’t for everyone’s tastes, but it should be, you cowards. Good luck shaking this one when you go to sleep at night.