It’s easy to imagine the bad version of You Were Never Really Here. Placed in the hands of another director, this could have ended up being the same pedestrian action-thriller Liam Neeson has continually made over the last decade. The story of a troubled veteran rescuing a young girl from sex slavery has been told before masterfully (Taxi Driver) and decidedly less so (Taken and The Equalizer). Writer / director Lynne Ramsay takes her pulpy source material (a 2013 novella by Jonathan Ames) and turns it into a blistering character study of trauma that’s teeming with urgent despair. It is, without a doubt, the best film released so far this year.
Throughout her sparse filmography, Ramsay has shown a fascination with characters reeling in the aftermath of violence. Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) is similarly damaged but also has no problem dishing out his own brand of brutality, which often involves bludgeoning scumbags to death with a ball-peen hammer. The film’s initial images — Joe asphyxiating himself with a plastic bag, a burning photograph of a young girl — give us the story’s bare bones. Joe has just finished rescuing an underage girl from a sex trafficking ring, and he wants to die.
Regarding Joe’s trauma, Ramsay offers fleeting and interspersed images to suggest exactly what has diminished him into a brooding, mumbling ghost. Another film might spend a third of its running time detailing the horrors Joe witnessed in military combat or as an FBI agent; these brief glimpses tell us just enough to understand his repeated suicide attempts. Although You Were Never Really Here is certainly a thriller, and a tense one at that, the fragmented editing and ethereal Johnny Greenwood score (among his finest) provide an atmosphere that will intrigue the arthouse crowd and potentially alienate those expecting something more straightforward.
Joe’s latest assignment comes from a senator whose daughter has been kidnapped and forced into sex slavery. As is always the case, the situation turns out to be far more ugly and dangerous than it first appeared once Joe finds the girl.
While the story is as uncomplicated as they come, Ramsay and editor Joe Bini deliver it in mesmerizing fashion. Clocking in at 89 minutes, You Were Never Really Here is a no-frills, mostly dialogue-free affair, which makes the whole experience powerfully disorienting and frequently reliant on the ability to follow major plot developments on inference alone.
Phoenix won the Best Actor prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival for his role here, and it’s yet another highlight among a decade of career-peak performances. Phoenix is all physicality: a bruised, scarred slab of meat who’s nondescript in one moment and fearfully imposing in the next. He only exudes warmth and companionship during exchanges with his elderly mother (with whom he lives) and occasionally with Nina, the senator’s daughter, with whom he spends much of the film. It’s not hard to imagine Nina, who has already suffered unspeakable sexual abuse, growing into a similarly shell-shocked figure.
Consider a seemingly minor scene where a group of young women stops Joe in the street and asks him to take a picture. In a film whose plot unfolds at such a relentless pace, Ramsay takes an extended moment to dwell on this interaction between a loner and these carefree, youthful friends. She films the encounter from Joe’s POV, ambient sound drowning out their laughter and their faces shot at unnatural angles. In their happiness, these people are alien to Joe, existing in a world he has not inhabited for a long time. He’s still here in a sense, but barely.
It’s these forlorn moments of empathy that stay with you long after the film’s devastating final frame. You Were Never Really Here isn’t the exercise in badassery you might expect from watching the trailer or even reading Ames’ novella. It’s a gruesome, gorgeous piece of work that would rather live in moments of quiet melancholy than face-smashing violence.