Joaquin Phoenix is simply stupendous in You Were Never Really Here. His performance is damn near flammable—dangerous if you get too close. What a team he makes with Scottish writer-director Lynne Ramsay, whose output is small but inarguably stunning (Ratcatcher, Movern Caller, We Need to Talk About Kevin). Working from a 2013 novel by Jonathan Ames, the actor and the filmmaker craft a fiercely brilliant drama that gets under your skin and makes it crawl.
Phoenix plays Joe, a war vet who supports himself and his ailing mom (Judith Roberts) by working as a hit man. Killing is taking its toll on Joe; his PTSD has been sparking suicidal urges. We see him leaning over railroad tracks or covering his head with a plastic bag, removing it only when it’s almost too late. His boss (The Wire’s John Doman) distracts him with a new assignment: rescue Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), the 13-year-old daughter of Sen. Albert Votto (Alex Manette). She’s been kidnapped and forced to do the perverted bidding of rich pedophiles, and it’s Joe’s job to get Nina out of the heavily-guarded Manhattan brownstone where she’s being held. Our man’s preferred weapon of choice is a ball peen hammer. The senator urges him to be brutal.
That’s the setup, which suggests Taxi Driver mixed with standard thriller tropes that would derail a lesser film. Don’t be fooled by the familiar here: Ramsay goes her own way with a feverish originality that never trucks with the obvious. And Phoenix plumbs the violence of the mind with chilling authenticity. The actor has stated that the filmmaker gave him an audio file of fireworks mixed with gunshots to suggest what’s going on in Joe’s head. You can almost hear the noise, too, even when he’s silent.
All praise to Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood (Phantom Thread, There Will Be Blood) for a thrilling score that blends its beats with the chaotic noise of the streets – a pulsating tempo that drives the plot forward. Ramsay refuses to revel in gore, preferring to show Joe in preparation for a kill or dealing with its aftermath. Yet it’s the sweet tenderness in Joe that comes a shock. His scenes with Nina, beautifully played by Samsonov, become a lifeline for Joe as darkness falls. In one astounding scene, Joe sits with a dying victim, gently singing along to Charlene’s “I’ve Never Been to Me.”
The technique is expressionistic, even elliptical; cinematographer Thomas Townend know how to paint with light to tell the story, including flashbacks to the abuse Joe suffered as a child at hands of father – who also wielded a hammer to rage at the world. There’s no sentimentality in her approach, even when this antihero struggles for some kind of redemption – she simply gives us a film of jabbing intensity that gives way to an impassioned struggle for humanity. You Were Never Really Here barely takes up 90 minutes of screen time. Trust us, you won’t know what hit you.