Lynne Ramsay’s harrowing new thriller You Were Never Really Here feels like a violent vigilante flick projected through an arthouse prism. It’s both relentlessly bleak and formally experimental, fueled by an exquisitely raw, unselfconscious performance by Joaquin Phoenix that feels as charged as an exposed nerve. Despite all of that, it’s also a bit inscrutable – occasionally too abstract and oblique to fully engage with, admirable more than absorbing.
Phoenix plays a man named Joe. Quiet, haunted, and looking aged beyond his years by a bushy, salt-and-pepper mountain-man beard, this loner first appears in a nondescript skid-row motel room as he’s tidying up what seems to be the aftermath of a grisly crime scene. He washes blood from a hammer, burns the school photo of a young girl, and snuffs out the flames with a Gideon’s bible taken from the nightstand drawer. On the soundtrack, Jonny Greenwood’s dissonant, discordant sonic cues hip you to Joe’s disheveled mental state. The set-up seems to indicate we’re about to witness Phoenix’s take on Travis Bickle, that righteous and disturbed avenger of New York’s scuzzy mean streets in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver.
And that link only gets stronger when we learn that Joe isn’t some sort of serial killer (as we’re initially decoyed into thinking), but rather a for-hire rescuer of young women — runaways sucked into the sex trade or as the zonked-out plaything hostages of sicko creeps. He’s on the side of good, even if his methods are brutal and seem to take a heavy spiritual toll on him. Then again, maybe he was damaged beforehand. It’s hard to say. A few brief flashbacks to Joe’s past are too impressionistic and fleeting to help fill in the gaps much.
Phoenix seems perfectly cast in Ramsay’s grim death-trip of a film. The director and her star are both experimentalists. When given enough rope, there’s no knowing how far and how deep an actor like Phoenix will descend for a role, ever precariously balancing on the highwire between Method and madness. He may be the most wildly unpredictable movie star in cinema today. (It’s not for nothing that he won the best actor award at Cannes for his performance in the film). Ramsay, the Scottish director of 2002’s wonderful-but-underseen Morvern Callar and 2011’s deeply unsettling We Need to Talk About Kevin, is a singular filmmaker, a true original. Even if you don’t respond to her style (my batting average is mixed), there’s no denying the precision and artistry behind it. Here, the two make a perfect team – simpatico in their narrative daring.
Based on a slim novella by Jonathan Ames, You Were Never Really Here is a movie of showing not telling. Phoenix only seems to have a few spoken lines in the film. But he manages to express an entire inner world through his mannerisms and thousand-yard war-vet’s stare. In the end, there’s no question that what you’re watching is a masterfully-made movie, albeit one that’s easier to admire from afar than up close. Whether intentional or not, the film keeps you at an arm’s length, never letting you get too close – too connected. Then again, considering the state of Joe’s mind, maybe that’s for the best. B-