You Were Never Really Here

★ ★ ★ ★

“You Were Never Really Here” is about a man with a special set of skills who rescues young women and yet it couldn’t be any more different from “Taken” and other recent guardian angel action movies.

Joaquin Phoenix stars as Joe, a bulky, bearded veteran who lives with his mother. When he isn’t rescuing young girls from human traffickers he’s doing household chores, helping his mom clean the silver wear or, when memories of his violent past overtake him, trying to kill himself.   

Driven by vengeance and haunted by memories of childhood abuse he metes out punishment to human traffickers, violently beating them with fists and hammers. “Can you be brutal?” asks a client. “I can,” he replies calmly.

When a job retrieving Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), the eleven-year-old daughter of a high-ranking New York politician (Alex Manette), from a pedophile ring goes sideways, Joe is forced to delve deeper than ever before.    

There is violence in “You Were Never Really Here” but don’t expect a Liam Neeson style action flick. First of all Joe’s special set of skills mainly include surveillance and ball peen hammer assault. Secondly Joe doesn’t have any catchphrases. He’s a secretive man of action, plagued by PTSD and driven by a sense of righteous justice. Think Travis Bickle, not former Green Beret and CIA operative Bryan Mills.

Phoenix delivers a deceptively simple performance. A man of few words Joe expresses himself in other ways and Phoneix finds way to do much while doing very little. The pain in his eyes, amplified by random flashbacks to his troubled youth, reveals both his personal torture and why he works exclusively with mistreated children. More importantly are the traces of humanity that slip through Joe’s blank façade. The way he dotes on his mother or holds a dying man’s hand, singing along with a syrupy pop song, as life slips away. In another scene he instructs his pre-teen rescue to close her eyes, trying to protect what little innocence she has left, before he bludgeons one of her captors to death. It’s in these moments that Joe becomes a fully rounded character and not simply a killing machine.      

Scottish director Lynne Ramsay never gives away the game, doling out the details only as necessary. The flashbacks are jagged, poking into the story like a shard of glass slashing through silk. Those elements, bolstered by an anxiety inducing score—loud, abrasive yet beautiful—from Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, combine to present an intriguing, elliptical portrait of a tortured soul.

4 STARS