Joaquin Phoenix riveting in the haunting ‘You Were Never Really Here’


Seven years ago, the gifted Scottish writer-director Lynne Ramsay made a bleak and unsettling domestic horror film titled “We Need to Talk About Kevin.” Her latest feature, her fourth in nearly two decades, is a hypnotically grim New York crime thriller called “You Were Never Really Here.”

Both movies are named after pre-existing source material, which makes it a sly coincidence that Ramsay has now directed two consecutive movies that confront the viewer with strong, declarative statements. The directness of those titles feels true to the arresting quality of Ramsay’s cinema but also somewhat at odds with the feverish elusiveness of her methods. She has a great deal to say and a hundred artfully oblique ways to say it.

At first glance, “You Were Never Really Here,” adapted by Ramsay from Jonathan Ames’ tough-minded 2013 novella, would appear to be a lean, well-crafted exercise in art-house pulp. The movie runs a sleek 89 minutes — roughly speaking, about a page per minute of screen time — and it feels as brutally stripped down as its anti-hero, a gloomy thug-for-hire named Joe, played by Joaquin Phoenix in what might be his most rivetingly contained performance.

But there is more to admire here than a simple economy of form and content, and the spareness of Ramsay’s approach is no mere approximation of Ames’ hard-boiled prose. The texture is as gritty as the filmmaking is exquisite. The hard shimmer of Thomas Townend’s camerawork, the sudden convulsions of Joe Bini’s editing and the juddering intensity of Jonny Greenwood’s score (another gift from the Oscar-nominated composer of “Phantom Thread”) conspire to produce their own strange, angular poetry.

As for Phoenix, you cannot help but marvel at his ability to express so much while appearing to do so little. His Joe is a quiet, withdrawn, emptied-out husk of a man, with a scraggly gray beard, scars on his upper body and a talent for hurting people. He came by that talent, in part, through his experience as an FBI agent and a Marine in the Gulf War. Mostly, though, it’s rooted in the horrific abuse he suffered at the hands of his late father, as we see in jolting flashbacks that Ramsay deploys with shivery skill.

In the hands of a less assured filmmaker, this conceit might have come across as little more than connect-the-dots psychologizing. But Ramsay, a master of elliptical film language, gives the flashbacks an intensely visceral power. Their function is always expressive, never expository; each memory is a jagged, explosive little reminder of Joe’s past, forever bearing down on his present.

Now living in Queens with his aging mother (a fine Judith Roberts), whom he treats with prickly but undisguised affection, Joe channels all this psychic pain into the only job he can still do. He rescues children from sex slavery, working discreetly through a middleman (“The Wire’s” John Doman) for private clients — mostly desperate parents who want to get their children back safely and quickly, and to inflict maximum possible suffering on the perpetrators.

Joe’s latest assignment is a high-profile but seemingly straightforward job that goes disastrously awry. His client is a New York senator (Alex Manette) whose teenage daughter, Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), has been kidnapped and, according to an anonymous tip, forced to work in a Manhattan brothel. Joe’s mission thus becomes the latest translation of the sacred sociopathic-cinema urtext that is “Taxi Driver,” and what it lacks in originality, it makes up for in craft, commitment and brooding intensity.

Armed with his weapon of choice, a ball-peen hammer, Joe gets the job done with a swiftness and efficiency that find an echo in Ramsay’s filmmaking. The action is brutal and unsparing but strikingly devoid of sadism; more than once, the movie skips the gory details and cuts to the aftermath, as if to emphasize the finality of all this killing. In the story’s boldest stroke of gallows humor, Joe and a fallen adversary croon softly together to a song on the radio, two souls improbably united by the strange, terrible intimacy of professional murder.

This is hardly the first time Phoenix has played a troubled man prowling around society’s margins, as he did so memorably in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master” and James Gray’s “Two Lovers.” But his aesthetic kinship with Ramsay feels unique; she seems to perceive him in a way that few other filmmakers have. (“You Were Never Really Here” won two prizes at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, for Phoenix’s performance and Ramsay’s screenplay.) Whether the camera is tracking Joe down a dark alley or framing him underwater in a tableau of ghostly, frozen-in-time beauty, nearly every shot takes on the disquieting quality of a psychic X-ray.

Some narrative details have been altered from the book, but the plot is largely beside the point. The settling of scores and the unraveling of a far-reaching political conspiracy do not interest Ramsay so much as the eerie interplay of agony and resilience in Joe’s face, the crucible of suffering he endures and the slow, steady psychological reversal that transpires over the course of his hellish journey.

When we first meet Joe, he is broken and suicidal, a condition the film underscores with a series of tight, destabilizing close-ups, as if the camera were afraid to let him out of its sight. By the end, the frame has expanded, taking in the rooms and hallways through which Joe has come and gone, a swift and invisible angel of death. It may be true that he was never really here, but as this hypnotic, hard-to-shake movie reminds us, in the end we’re all just passing through.



Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Movies & TV

Austin360 On The Record: Western Youth, Jaimee Harris, Will Courtney, more
Austin360 On The Record: Western Youth, Jaimee Harris, Will Courtney, more

Western Youth. Contributed/Letitia Smith OUT THIS WEEK Western Youth, self-titled. With the recent addition of well-traveled Austin troubadour Graham Weber to their lineup, the roots-rock band formed in 2012 by singer-guitarists Taylor Williams and Matt Gregg plus drummer Brian Bowe has reached another level. Weber, Williams and ...
Home Slice Pizza North Loop now open Tuesdays; online ordering available at both locations
Home Slice Pizza North Loop now open Tuesdays; online ordering available at both locations

There was a unique frustration when I lived in Rome. You’d get excited about going to lunch, only to arrive and realize that the restaurant was  chiuso per giorno di riposo. Closed for a day of rest. I remember it happening a lot on Tuesdays and also on Sundays, obviously. In the always-open United ...
Uchi opening its first location outside of Texas in October
Uchi opening its first location outside of Texas in October

One of the standard bearers of refined dining in Austin and throughout Texas has its eyes set beyond the Lone Star State. After opening locations in Dallas and Houston, Hai Hospitality is set to open Uchi Denver on October 4. The restaurant will be located on the corner...
The best pepperoni pizzas in Austin
The best pepperoni pizzas in Austin

It’s another fake food holiday; I mean, really, #NationalPepperoniPizza day? Well, whatever. It is one of my favorite pizza orders, though I sometimes get creative. A pizza from Home Slice Pizza with a red bell pepper heart design. Tom McCarthy Jr. FOR AMERICAN-STATESMAN In the spirit of this day of national recognition, here are...
Cedar Door owners opening Italian-Southern restaurant downtown Friday
Cedar Door owners opening Italian-Southern restaurant downtown Friday

Two of the most popular dining trends over the past several years in Austin have been Southern and Italian cuisines. Soon you can get a taste of both under one roof. Longtime Cedar Door owners Steve and Heather Potts will open La Volpe Friday at 201 Brazos St. B, next door to their downtown...
More Stories