Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here is a film about violence — and it’s quite brutal in its way — but very little of that violence is shown. Instead, Ramsay shows us the often banal lead-up and the inevitably horrific aftermath. Or the act happens just offscreen, so we can hear it all.
This is just one of the many ways that Ramsay fragments the film. Her approach subverts action movie expectations, leaving the audience on shaky ground while reflecting the chaotic mindset of her main character, a damaged avenging angel named Joe. Played by Joaquin Phoenix, with a giant mangy beard and tell-tales scars all over his toned-turned-flabby flesh, Joe is haunted by fleeting images of children in danger. Some of them are innocents he failed to save, some of them are himself. The trauma binds them together in Joe’s mind and make them indistinguishable.
Joe’s past is supposedly more fleshed-out in the Jonathan Ames novella which serves as the film’s basis, but Ramsay gives us jagged moments and images that never coalesce into “proper” flashbacks. From these fragments, we get the sense that Joe was in the military and, later, involved with some form of law enforcement. Rather than doing good, these experiences have loaded Joe down with trauma and guilt.
As a form of penance and, sure, revenge, Joe is now a hitman who specializes in rescuing kidnapped girls, while dishing out punishment to their abductors with a ball peen hammer. His latest assignment is to rescue a senator’s pre-teen daughter (Ekaterina Samsonov) from a nondescript brownstone that is actually a pedophile playground. Phoenix and Samsonov have an immediate chemistry that makes viewers look forward to watching their characters buddy up, but the film has other ideas for them.
You Were Never Really Here offers a few unexpected narrative twists, that both fit within and challenge the traditional style of thriller filmmaking. Director Ramsay is far less focused on delivering the genre goods than on fully examining Joe’s troubled nature. One could easily see another (let’s be honest, dude) filmmaker amping up the intensity of Joe’s nasty handiwork, in the name of righteous badassery. Ramsay’s vision of Joe is not that of a righteous badass; for much of the film, we can’t even be entirely sure if we should be on his side.
For his part, Phoenix doesn’t shy away from Joe’s pitiable ugliness, but the purity with which he embodies the character’s pain makes it impossible to look away from him. He also makes Joe endearing during a few grace notes of unmediated kindness, kidding around with his elderly mom (Judith Roberts) or lightly singing Charlene’s schlock pop hit “I’ve Never Been To Me” with a dying man. In a career full of remarkable performances, this one ranks with Phoenix’s finest.
I hesitate to give You Were Never Really Here a star rating, because I feel like I’m still processing it. It’s so idiosyncratic, so unexpected and off-kilter, that it doesn’t offer itself to easy labelling. There’s originality, poetry, and horror, as there is in Lynne Ramsay’s other work (Ratcatcher, Morvern Callar, We Need to Talk About Kevin), but this movie still doesn’t even quite behave like those movies do. So take this rating less as a numerical approximation of the film, than just as an eager recommendation that you should go see it. So go see it!
You Were Never Really Here opens in select cities April 6.
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Justin Remer makes movies, directs music videos, and plays in the bands Duck the Piano Wire and Elastic No-No Band when he is not writing movie reviews. His folk-rock documentary MAKING LOVERS & DOLLARS is currently streaming on Amazon.