There have been many films about men of violence, who do terrible things while trying to tame inner demons and heal past traumas. However, few of these men have been played as powerfully as Joaquin Phoenix plays Joe, who we find working as a gun for hire in New York, tracking down girls who have been trafficked into prostitution. And certainly very, very few films about men like Joe have been told in such a artful, precise, and haunting way as we see here.
In the hands of director Lynne Ramsay, Joe's story comes in a stream of consciousness, interspersed with nightmarish memories, hallucinations, and fantasies. His latest job is to track down Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), the runaway teenage daughter of a local state senator, Votto (Alex Manette), and bring her home. This present day story plays out in fairly typical fashion, with Joe carrying out his mission and dealing with its aftermath in very straightforward terms. It's the intrusion of Joe's other thoughts, however, that makes his actions so affecting. There's no exposition or explanation for the images that we see from Joe's past, but there's enough that we can piece things together: a desert landscape where he is a soldier, a law enforcement raid with tragic consequences, and nailbiting flashes to his unpleasant childhood.
It's not just which memories we see, but what triggers them. The camera lingers on the face of a woman he sees on the street, and then we cut to the face of a corpse, an unconscious but inescapable association. Spotting a gobetween's young son brings back unwanted thoughts of the kids he gave candy bars to as a soldier. The film's very first images are of Joe with a plastic bag over his head, and it's not clear if he's fantasizing about suicide or actually attempting it. So while Joe is outwardly the kind of stoic, impassive figure that we expect to see in crime thrillers, his internal world is a precarious emotional maelstrom. Joaquin Phoenix's performance conveys so much unspoken pain and anguish, even in the quiet moments when he's spending time with his ailing mother (Judith Roberts) or examining green jelly beans in the office of McLeary (John Dorman), who arranges his jobs. In a story of so much darkness and degradation, it's the little moments of Joe's humanity that are the most memorable.
The movie is very violent, but it handles violence in a very careful, thoughtful manner. Mostly we see Joe preparing for or recovering from the vicious assaults and murders that he inflicts on others. However. the sequence where we see him storm a building and attack multiple men is one of the few parts of the film that we don't see from his subjective viewpoint. Instead, we watch the events play out over security camera footage, giving the audience a degree of detachment from Joe's actions, and removing any opportunity to enjoy them on a visceral level. It's a strong subversion of the usual crime thriller formula, where violence is often treated as positive and climactic. Here, it's just an ugly and necessary means to an end, often with heartbreaking consequences.
Our hero's uneasy state of mind is largely conveyed through the editing. We often see quick flashes of a memory before it plays out more fully later on, showing how Joe resists thinking about painful parts of his past but is unable to escape them. These moments compound during his most stressful experiences, making them more intense and upsetting. The stunning centerpiece of "You Were Never Really Here" is a dreamlike underwater sequence, another suicide attempt that doubles as a plunge into Joe's subconscious. And it's the most mesmerizing, oddly tranquil brush with death I've ever seen in a movie like this, full of beautiful images set to Jonny Greenwood's moody, lulling score. The whole film is full of these unexpected, striking moments that go against expectations.
It's a relief to find Lynne Ramsay making such an uncompromising, fearless film after her last major project fell apart. This is only her fourth feature, and it's a brief one, but it's clear that it was made on her terms and without compromise. And that certainly makes the long wait worth it.