“You Were Never Really Here” – “McCleary said you were brutal.” – State Senator Albert Votto (Alex Manette)
“I can be.” – Joe (Joaquin Phoenix)
Joe might look like an average one, but he lives in extremes. Now, he does not partake in extreme hobbies like sky diving, bungee jumping or riding motorcycles at high speeds but instead, he works irregular hours under extreme circumstances. Ones that only very brave, very resolute or very damaged individuals could pursue.
In Joe’s case, he is all three.
Writer/director Lynne Ramsay and Phoenix form a dynamic pair who open up doors into a seedy underworld an unlikely crusader who rescues defenseless victims from it. Joe rescues underage girls who are caught in an unspeakable web of human trafficking. Not in a third-world country, but within shadowy urban catacombs (and suburbs) within the U.S.A. “You Were Never Really Here” dives headfirst into ruthless territory and rather than give much verbal explanation, the film’s exposition lays in thrift, minuscule quantities throughout its 90-minute runtime.
The audience learns about Joe’s history and his current, unhealthy state of mind visually through small interactions with his colleague, John McCleary (John Doman), his mother (Judith Roberts) and the various bad guys he brutalizes or kills, and not many people will want to confront Joe in a dark alley.
Phoenix sports a similar look to his pseudo-mockumentary “I’m Still Here” (2010), as his unkempt hair and shaggy, lengthy beard is also matched with mumbled speech from the previously-mentioned film. He has gained – what looks like – 30 pounds from a steady diet of fast food, and with his character’s untreated case of post-traumatic stress disorder, wellness is not a priority for Joe at the moment.
Joe shows some shades of Travis Bickle, but 42 years after “Taxi Driver” (1976), this character brings a more visceral means of violence and less talk. Like it or not, Joe is our protagonist, but then, his work is honorable, despite the very bloody means to a hopeful end.
The film does not pull many punches and bathes in despair. From preteens forced in impossible circumstances to Joe’s own internal battles with money, relationships, his dysfunctional childhood, and troubling military service, “You Were Never Really Here” gives the audience very little cause for optimism.
This is not a date movie at all. Any unsuspecting guy inviting his girlfriend/fiancée/wife to this film for a pleasant night at the movies would engender immediate grounds for a breakup/divorce. Still, Joe actually using his thuggish weapon of choice, the picture’s stylish, synthesizer-thumping soundtrack and nightmare-like state of present-day and the past completely hypnotize. It is impossible to look away.
Through Ramsay’s brave, steady hand and Phoenix’s performance that teeters on the edge of self-destruction and heroism, they leave a lasting impression, and despite the film’s title, audiences will – quite frankly – remember that they were here.
⭐⭐⭐ 1/2 out of ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Image credits: Amazon Studios; Trailer credits: New Movie Buzz (YouTube)