“They tell me you’re a brutal man,” a client says to Joe (Joaquin Phoenix, sporting full Mel Gibson beard and a similar shimmering sense of danger and incipient psychosis) and indeed he is. We first meet the lead character of Lynne Ramsay’s new film You Were Never Really Here as he comes out of a hotel where he has successfully completed a job in Cincinnati.
Joe’s speciality is rescuing children from sex rings and though he dresses like a hobo and shambles like one too, he is very good at his dangerous work. He’s attacked in the alleyway by a heavy but makes short work of his assailant with a headbutt, before grabbing a cab to the airport. Joe lives in New York with his ailing mother (Judith Roberts) with whom he has possibly the only human relationship in his life. They sing old songs while polishing the silverware. Everyone else and the world itself is zoned out and held at bay.
With his hood up and his head down, Joe makes himself as invisible as possible, counting under his breath and with an urge towards self-annihilation. He gets his jobs through a middleman (John Doman). As a war veteran and former FBI agent, Joe has a skill set but struggles with some dark memories of his service as well as depression and the legacy of an abusive father, all shown in short impressionistic flashbacks. Tasked with rescuing a state senator’s daughter from a sex ring, Joe sets about his task with a ritualistic methodology – he hires a car, goes shopping – incidentally, his weapon of choice is a ball-peen hammer – and has a sauna to psyche himself up for breaking into hotel where the girl is being held.
Though miles away from the kind of dad fantasy of Taken, You Were Never Really Here works as a tense thriller. This is a very violent film in some respects, but only a slim fraction appears on screen, Ramsay preferring to infer the viciousness. The atmosphere is drenched in threat as we see Joe enter the high class brothel and complete his mission via the security footage. A similar avoidance of gratuity is necessarily taken for the paedophile’s layer and the treatment of the daughter, Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov). “Close your eyes,” Joe tells her before finishing off a John with his favoured hammer. In the aftermath, however, something goes wrong and Joe loses the girl, is shot in the face and realises that he is now the hunted.
Over the years, Phoenix has given us some of the most memorable portraits of dark flawed men from Commodus to Johnny Cash. Here, he is excellent, utterly convincing as a man who has been hammered by the world and so has decided to hammer it back. An adaptation of Jonathan Ames’ novella, Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here escapes the pastiche of the original and creates something tough and noirish. The superb soundtrack by Jonny Greenwood is aural PTSD at times, while allowing for interludes of almost peace.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty