You Were Never Really Here

When we first meet Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), he's gasping for air, his head encased in a plastic bag. Although the middle-aged, slightly paunchy but muscular, ponytailed and bearded veteran may be suicidal, he has too many responsibilities weighing on him to finish his attempts. He cares for a mother (Judith Roberts, "Death Sentence") slipping into dementia and makes his living rescuing young women from the sex trade, but his latest job retrieving the 13 year-old daughter of Senator Albert Votto (Alex Mannette, "We Need to Talk About Kevin") may cost him everything in "You Were Never Really Here."

Laura's Review: A-

Despite its dark subject matter and extreme violence, writer/director Lynne Ramsey's ("We Need to Talk About Kevin") adaptation of Jonathan Ames' novella is a thing of impressionistic beauty. Her screenplay won at 2017's Cannes Film Festival and it is easy to see why. After that suicidal moment, Ramsey opens in media res, Joe walking down a corridor wiping gore off a hammer. He exits into an alley, fights off a man, and slips into a home where an old woman sits watching "Psycho." Will she be the next victim?

We quickly learn otherwise as Joe jokes with his mom, his relationship with her one of both tender caring and frustrated exasperation. Ramsey drops seemingly unrelated scene snippets into her action, at first disorienting until we realize these are Joe's memories (the film is beautifully edited by "We Need to Talk About Kevin's" Joe Bini), the young boy fearfully observing the lower half of a man holding a hammer and a woman cowering beneath a dining room table himself. Now that he's old enough to protect this woman, it has taken the form of making sure she's eaten and taken her medication.

That opening scene is explained when Joe visits John McCleary (John Doman, "Mystic River") for his next job. McCleary's excited, a 50K payoff in the offing if Joe can locate and return Votto's 'runaway' daughter. The senator is distraught, mumbling about certain people and underaged girls, noting that he's heard Joe is 'brutal.' 'I can be,' Joe quietly responds. 'I want you to hurt them,' the senator orders.

After a visit to a hardware store, we see Joe enter a brownstone, a long hallway offering multiple doors. Joe goes in and out. A young girl wanders out, dazed. in a nightgown. Joe chases a naked man into the hallway, attacking him with his hammer. He then finds the angelic looking Nina Votto (Ekaterina Samsonov), hoists her onto his back, and makes a hasty retreat, reassuring her as they wait out pursuers in a parking garage. But when they make it back to shelter, television news is reporting Senator Votto's leap off a building and two policemen barge in and grab Nina.

Phoenix, who also won an award at Cannes for his performance, is great here, brooding and haunted yet still capable of engagement, even humor. His eyes and quiet demeanor tells us of his great burden, the sins of men against women, yet his taciturn loner has plenty of compassion left, as we see in one extraordinary scene with a dying gunman (Scott Price) who reveals a sickening truth. Ramsey's fragmented structure buoys the actor, shards of memory filling in his back story, a heap of dead women in the back of a truck reflected back in how he sees the smiling teenagers who'd asked him to take a picture on the street. There is a spiritual quality to this man, his performing of a burial ritual in a lake like a Baptism in reverse, one in which his despair is washed away by a floating fantasy of a soul still in need of saving.

Ramsey's production is one of extremes, locations ranging from the homes and workplaces of those living in the margins to the hushed opulence housing those in power. The film moves from darkness to light (cinematography by "We Need to Talk About Kevin's" Tom Townend) as it progresses, from interiors to exteriors, from the inner city to the country. Jonny Greenwood's ("Phantom Thread") score adds dread and tension with atonal strings and sickly techno, leavened by Ramsey's often ironic song selection ('If I Knew You Were Comin' (I'd Have Baked a Cake)'). Sound design mirrors the fractured, fragmentary visuals.

This psychological portrait cum modern pulp noir is not for the faint of heart, often playing like an homage to the last fifteen minutes of "Taxi Driver," but the film's horrific elements are cloaked in a state of grace, Ramsey's achievement remarkable.

Robin's Review: B-

Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) is a combat veteran, former FBI agent and suffers, badly, from PTSD and suicidal behavior. Now, he makes a living as a hired fixer, rescuing young women and children from human traffickers. His latest job is to find and bring home, by whatever means, Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), the missing young daughter of Senator Albert Votto (Alex Manette) in “You Were Never Really Here.”

Director Lynne Ramsey adapts the book of the same name by Jonathan Ames with Joachim Phoenix as the troubled anti-hero on what he thinks is a just another case. What transpires is Joe’s rescue of Nina from a brothel catering to wealthy men. He brutally attacks the guards and patrons with his newly purchased 16-ounce ball peen hammer, his killing weapon of choice, and brings Nina out.

There is more to the case than Joe can possibly imagine, though. The story goes beyond the initial kidnapping and Nina’s liberation and delves into the depths of the corruption at the highest levels. Joe’s mission changes because of this rampant corruption and he becomes more a vigilante than the hired gun he was.

Joachim Phoenix gives a decent character study of a man haunted by his past. Nina’s rescue is a catalyst for his ultimate redemption, but the cost in human life is high. Joe is a violent man but, fortunately, his vicious dispatch of the bad guys in his way, with his weapon of choice, is mostly off-screen or on-video surveillance monitor.

The film’s violent mood is brought out in its dark hues and shadows as the wild-maned and bearded Joe, a man of few words and all action, dispatches the enemies of goodness. Unfortunately, for me, I was not wowed, just entertained