Joaquin Phoenix is one of those rare actors who seems to disappear in almost every role he plays, his physicality and mannerisms uniquely rebuilt with each character he takes on. In You Were Never Really Here, Phoenix pairs up with writer-director Lynne Ramsay (We Need To Talk About Kevin) to become Joe: a hulking, PTSD-suffering, war-vet-turned-hit-man, whose weapon of choice is a ball-peen hammer. And as much as Joe appears to hate himself—we open with a scene of him covering his head in a plastic bag and breathing deeply—he makes it impossible for us to do the same.
For although he prefers his kills blunt and bloody, it doesn’t take long to realize Joe is really the good guy in a bad world. Joe has recently been hired to rescue Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), the thirteen-year-old daughter of a senator who has been kidnapped by high-profile sex traffickers and is being held in a heavily guarded uptown New York brownstone. Although the plot (and Jonathan Ames’ novella from which the movie is based) appears ripped from a pulp thriller, those familiar with Ramsay’s work know to expect something different.
If nothing else, You Were Never Really Here is a churning, stylistically rich, sensory experience. Jonny Greenwood’s (Phantom Thread, There Will Be Blood) flawless score picks up the throbbing street sounds and melds it with the interior mindscape of Joe’s guilt ridden conscious. Ramsey’s favored POV shots, and crafty scene splicing between traumatic flashbacks and current bloodbaths, tell the story of a man who is deeply empathetic, intent on carrying the wrongs of society all on his own back.
The film shines brightest in the quiet moments where Joe has put down his hammer and Phoenix is allowed the opportunity to bring out the subtle complexities of his character and the way he engages with the world: a touching scene where Joe hums a song with his aging mother (Judith Roberts) as they polish her cutlery, an exchange of tender compassion with young Nina in his car, a thoroughly memorable moment with a dying victim as they sing along together to Charlene’s “I’ve Never Been to Me.”
But for all of the perfectly rendered moments, the film is equally littered with confusion and half-hit notes. No character besides Phoenix’s Joe is allowed to develop into anything three-dimensional. The rest of the film’s world remains nothing but a hollow backdrop to Joe’s interior conflict. Even Joe’s own backstory is a challenge to piece together from the split-second clips of extreme close-ups, flared lighting, and the unreliable narrative of Joe’s own thoughts.
Ramsey famously sent Phoenix an audio file of Fourth of July fireworks before filming, telling him, “that’s what’s happening inside Joe’s head.” Although that approach may have helped Phoenix deliver potentially one of his best performances to date, it ultimately led to the creation of a film that seems to flicker with a crude energy that never manifests into anything that feels complete. For all of the film’s technical prowess, of which there is undoubtedly a clear abundance, You Were Never Really Here fails to leave a lasting impression.