Based on a novella by Jonathan Ames, You Were Never Really Here is adapted and directed by Lynne Ramsay, the Scottish filmmaker behind Ratcatcher (1999), Morvern Callar (2002) and We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011), whose movies mix almost unbearably brutal scenarios with moments of great beauty and transcendence. You Were Never Really Here continues that tradition with the story of Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), a PTSD-addled former combat veteran and FBI agent who now works outside the law to track down and rescue young girls who have been kidnapped by sex trafficking rings.
Joe is clearly established as a deeply damaged man from the beginning, as we glimpse his unsparingly violent methods as well as his simplistic, not-very-well-off home life with his dementia-addled mother (Judith Roberts). There are also eventually flashbacks to Joe’s childhood, which was scarred by his abusive father, and his days in the military, which inflicted their own particular trauma on him.
But none of that prepares Joe for the danger he finds himself in when his handler, McCleary (John Doman), sends Joe on a job to retrieve Nina (an eerily ethereal Ekaterina Samsonov), the daughter of New York State Senator Albert Votto (Alex Manette), who is now being held in a secret Manhattan brothel for wealthy clients. Joe soon discovers that the assignment has led him into a thicket of conspiracy and murder from which he may not be able to salvage anyone — least of all himself.
On the surface, the plot of You Were Never Really Here reads more or less like a straight-down-the-line vigilante thriller — a field that encompasses everything from Taxi Driver to Eli Roth’s recent Death Wish remake. But that misguided latter film reveled in glorifying its protagonist’s transformation from mild-mannered doctor and family man into wisecracking avenger; You Were Never Really Here, like the Scorsese classic, focuses on the psychological toll that Joe’s background and choices have taken on him — and yet makes him a completely empathetic character thanks to his unrelenting need to save those who can’t save themselves in a world that ignores them.
Ramsay’s unique and stylized approach sets the film apart within its genre as well, just as We Need to Talk About Kevin was unlike any other “evil child” film around. Moments of sublime beauty crash up against scenes of shocking violence, with sound, music (another excellent score by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, who’s two for two recently with this and Phantom Thread) and editing all working flawlessly to create a suffocating atmosphere or urban and personal dread that tells Joe’s story in a spare, minimalistic style yet gives the viewer everything necessary to create a moving, painful portrait of this sad anti-hero.
We first meet Joe with a plastic bag over his head, although the reason why he rips it open is both funny and kind of pathetic. Moments of dark humor flicker through the movie to indicate some level of self-awareness in the character, although the way Ramsay crosses between his memories of the past and his engagement with the present also lets us know that this is an unreliable narrator. Phoenix is stunningly committed to the role, sweaty, chubby and disheveled yet fully believable in the moments when he turns into a more than capable killing machine. His weapon of choice is a hammer, right off the shelf from the local hardware store, and that tool becomes a frightening instrument of death in his hands.
In the film’s most impressive sequence, we see Joe invade the brothel in a series of quick cuts between different security cameras: he’s almost a ghost, glimpsed fleetingly as he appears unexpectedly, doles out his violent punishment to whoever is in his way and moves on. It’s an apt metaphor for both the sordid work that Joes does outside the bounds of normal society and way he’s become almost a specter himself, lost in a netherworld between his tormented past and the day-to-day grind of survival.
And yet even while You Were Never Really Here paints a grim portrait of Joe, the immediate world around him and the larger reality that produces the horrors he’s experienced and still battles, Ramsay ultimately injects a glimmer of hope into the proceedings. We don’t know what will happen to Joe or Nina, let alone the labyrinth of evil they’ve found themselves in. You Were Never Really Here spirals into almost complete darkness toward the end of its crisp 89 minutes, but there’s just enough of a glimpse of light to make us hope that they might find their way out.
You Were Never Really Here is out in theaters now.