Casting the lead role in a dark revenge thriller like “You Were Never Really Here” is tough because only truly talented and mesmerizing actors have the ability to pull it off. I saw it last year with Robert Pattinson in “Good Time” and now it’s the troubled Joaquin Phoenix stepping into a deeply challenging role. Barely speaking more than a few pages of dialogue throughout the entire film, Phoenix’s reliance on facial expressions, shifting eyes, and hulking yet hunched physical stature is an astounding achievement here. He’s far from subtle but carries the weighty character of Joe by creating a frightening, existential anti-hero that won’t soon be forgotten.
Based on the book of the same name by Jonathan Ames, the film follows a few days in the life of military veteran turned hitman Joe, an emotionally traumatized, quietly savage man who concentrates deep-seated rage into his weapon of choice: a ball-peen hammer nonchalantly purchased at the corner hardware store. When Joe is hired to track down a politician’s missing daughter (Ekaterina Samsonov), he discovers a horrifying sex slavery ring that dabbles in underage girls. Things quickly careen out of control when a high level conspiracy unfolds and Joe finds himself forced to turn his suicidal thoughts into a force for good — relatively speaking.
What follows is a spellbinding exercise in brutality, a dark, meditative, and slow moving tale of redemption and revenge. Joe survived a childhood trauma that’s alluded to in disturbing flashbacks, and he now lives his life in tormented agony with a rage and intense guilt that are mostly left unspoken. The film blurs lines between reality and fantasy, taking viewers into the disturbed mind of a damaged man.
Lynne Ramsay‘s direction is one that’s tailor-made for material like this, full of textured and moody visuals that act like a broken mirror of the brutality that consumes the battered lead character. She films bloody revenge scenes with such an artistic eye that you won’t forget them anytime soon. This film is further proof that cinematographer Thomas Townend is one of the most underrated working today. Some of the shots, like one particular standout view of an open car door covered in raindrops and reflecting the city’s neon, become an indulgent focus for far too long. They’re beautiful works of art, yes, but it’s unnecessary to keep them on screen for 90 seconds or more. Then again, these are the shots I remember — but not only for their sheer artistry.
The film is slow moving but with purpose. It’s artsy and atmospheric with a desperate sadness. It also features some of Ramsey’s trademark quirks, like one of the most memorable scenes of a singalong between two men as one lay bleeding and dying on the kitchen floor.
This is far from a mainstream film and certainly is not a crowd pleaser but if you’re up for a challenge, it’s one of the more interesting and pessimistically poetic features I’ve seen this year.