There’s plenty to admire in You Were Never Really Here. Lynne Ramsay’s edgy, coiled-spring of an action movie, based on a novella by Jonathan Ames, is deeply unsettling, even if I can’t help drawing comparisons with an even better film, Taxi Driver, with which it shares a central premise.
Ramsay’s take on the idea is a much more fragmentary affair than Martin Scorcese’s 1976 masterpiece, flickering eerily in and out of past trauma and often showing us images that turn out to be no more than sick fantasies in the head of the central character.
That character is Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), a shambling, bearlike presence in this film, muttering in monosyllables and wandering morosely from scene to scene as he metes out grim retribution to those he believes are beyond saving. He’s a traumatised ex-soldier and former FBI agent, who now earns a crust tracking down missing girls – and sadly there seems to be no shortage of them in the cities of America. In his down time, Joe cares for his aging mother (Judith Roberts), with whom he shares a touching, almost childlike bond.
Joe has a healthy paranoia about being seen by others (hence the title) and always does his level best to stay off the radar. His services are enlisted by Senator Albert Votto (Alex Manette), whose teenage daughter, Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov) has been kidnapped by a well-connected paedophile. She is being held hostage in a city hotel room, so Joe goes in to rescue her, armed with his favourite weapon, a ball-peen hammer. But he soon comes to fully appreciate just how powerful Nina’s kidnapper is – and it isn’t long before he has become a target for the man’s deadly enforcers.
This is an uncompromisingly brutal film, the many scenes of violence somehow made even more affecting by the fact that we glimpse them from a distance, or through the impassive monochrome gaze of a hotel’s security cameras. The action is liberally crosscut with harrowing memories of Joe’s troubled childhood, when he and his mother were regularly terrorised by Joe’s abusive father. It soon becomes apparent that what Joe is seeking more than anything else is some kind of redemption for his own suffering.
This is not an easy film to watch, but it’s nonetheless mesmerising. Phoenix is utterly convincing in the central role, there’s a bruising score by Johnny Greenwood, and Ramsay directs with a confident, almost hallucinatory style, never over-explaining the story, allowing her viewers to reach their own conclusions through the barrage of conflicting images she immerses them in.
It’s a powerful brew, not for the faint-hearted.