I wouldn’t want to mess with Joe, the protagonist of Lynn Ramsey’s feverish, psychological crime flick “You Were Never Really Here.” He’s got a large, bushy beard and long hair that he often keeps in a bun. His body is bulked up and covered in scars. A former war vet, Joe (played by Joaquin Phoenix) now works as a tough guy for hire—mostly rescuing little girls from underground sex clubs. Wielding only a hammer, Joe dishes out pain with such mechanical finesse; he’s been around enough violence for it to just bounce off of him.
Yet, I also spent much of the film wishing I could give Joe a great big hug. Maybe it’s his soft, gentle voice or his propensity for spacing out or that he straight up breaks down in tears at a couple points. This guy needs help… and a friend. Phoenix has such a knack for playing menacing, unhinged characters that also give off a nonthreatening and vulnerable aura. For Joe, violence is both second nature and a burden.
Right away we see how tormented and haunted he is. Traumatic memories, from his childhood, his war days and past rescue missions, flash on the screen in disorienting and suffocating fashion. Joe continues to be violent in a futile attempt to suppress these painful visions. “You Were Never Really Here” is a claustrophobic, nightmarish film about an individual whose mind and body is trapped in a seemingly endless cycle of violence.
Based on a terse novella by Jonathan Ames, “You Were Never Really Here” follows Joe over the course of an intense few days. After a spending some quality time with his ailing mom (who has her own traumatic background), he’s hired by New York Senator Albert Votto (Alex Manette) to rescue his teenage daughter Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov) from a local sex club. Joe buys a new, shiny hammer from a hardware store and then drives to a nondescript town house at the dead of night. He breaks into the house with ease and makes his way through its mostly barren interior.
In the film’s best-shot sequence, Joe takes out security guards and clients with swift precision before finally reaching Nina’s room. Ramsey and cinematographer Thomas Townend capture the action in long shot, via black and white surveillance cameras that line the ceilings. When Joe makes quick work of a random customer in a bedroom, a little girl (not Nina) wanders out into the hall.
The sequence has an austere, chilling sense of detachment. There’s nothing exciting or romanticized about the vile stuff that’s going on in this place or Joe’s actions. All of this icky stuff is brutally matter of fact. “You Were Never Really Here” is affectively gruesome and disturbing without being excessive. In fact in most cases, Ramsey emphasizes the build up and gory aftermath more than the actual violence.
Joe easily finds Nina and they escape the house of evil but things quickly dissolve into chaos. Joe is yanked into a conspiracy involving corrupt cops and politicians that leaves a trail of suffering and violence behind. At times, “You Were Never Really Here” resembles a combination of “Taken” and John Boorman’s splintered, elliptical Neo-noir “Point Blank” but much bleaker than both those films. The ominous flashbacks are brief enough that they don’t interrupt the picture’s flow, while Johnny Greenwood’s eerie score (an unsettling, off kilter mix of synthesizer, strings and percussion) accents the disarray.
Of course, Ramsey isn’t really interested in plot. She doesn’t dig too deep into the conspiracy or draw the girl rescue narrative out like “Taken” did. It resolves itself pretty quickly and she lets the audience put the remaining pieces together. No, Ramsey keeps the picture’s focus on Joe’s damaged psyche. How much more of this suffering can he take before he snaps? Is there any way for him to break out this destructive cycle?
Ramsey provides an answer to that question of sorts, which turns out to be a pleasant surprise. The main problem with Ames’ book is that it’s missing an entire final act, concluding on a frustratingly open-ended (i.e. unfinished) note. Ramsey fixes that, partly by giving the character of Nina far more agency and presence than Ames granted her. She’s strong-willed and resourceful. And the two wounded souls form a poignant, remedial bond. It’s harder to heal when you’re going at it alone. The movie even suggests that Joe needs Nina more than she needs him.
The final outlook is refreshingly optimistic and empowering. Satisfying, while still somewhat open-ended. Samsonov gives such a mature, understated performance that I wish Ramsey had given Nina a couple more scenes, either by herself or interacting with Joe, to further strengthen their relationship.
Overall, “You Were Never Really Here” lacks the character and thematic depth of Ramsey’s last effort, “We Need to Talk About Kevin,”--another hallucinogenic, terrifying movie about coping with trauma and evil. But it succeeds as an intense examination of the mental and physical toll nonstop violence can have on someone.