Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), the long haired, wildly bearded protagonist of Lynne Ransay’s You Were Never Really Here, has a bulky body covered in deep, thick scars. The camera frequently tracks these scars as Joe tends to more recent injuries and as he kills time in his home, which he shares with his elderly mother. Joe’s scars are not simply physical though, he’s a man haunted by his past. His childhood, his time fighting as a soldier and his previous career working for the FBI are all glimpsed in fragments throughout You Were Never Really Here. And whilst Ramsay, working from Jonathan Ames’ equally hard boiled but less abstract novella, never gives you any easy answers at all, these glimpses of a life gradually build the character of Joe in a fascinating and absolutely heartbreaking way.
The basics of the plot of You Were Never Really Here is pure pulp and recalls many a grim novel about the criminal underbelly. A senator, Votto (Alex Mantte), is searching for his young daughter, Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), who has been kidnapped by a sex trafficking ring, and Joe is the man sent to rescue her. He’s a blunt instrument, like his favoured weapon. His general approach is to just walk towards targets and beat them mercilessly with a ball peen hammer, an object of retribution that Joe almost seems to fetishise.
Ramsay and Phoenix have created a truly remarkable character in Joe
His victims are the most unpleasant people imaginable: those who sexually force themselves onto very young girls and those that profit from it. That isn’t to say that Joe plays entirely like some sort of hero. His solution is a direct and simple one, but it is a violent and merciless one that is clearly born out of trauma. It does not give him relief either, it’s not a tonic for the existential pain he is clearly experiencing.
Ramsay and Phoenix have created a truly remarkable character in Joe, who moves with lumbering purpose that makes every step almost feel like a tired inevitability and he speaks with a low reluctant mumble that betrays the fact that he barely wants to be alive, let alone speaking to anyone.
Ramsay’s fragmented approach to the storytelling, which provides an incredibly engrossing take on what could otherwise feel like familiar material is cut with the precision of a master surgeon searching for a tumour. And at less than ninety minutes, Ramsay and editor Joe Bini manage to make You Were Never Really Here a film that feels simultaneously deeply rich and incredibly sparse. No second – no matter if it at first seems inconsequential – is wasted, and every shot has clearly been carefully thought out and brilliantly composed. The opening, for instance, in which we only briefly see Phoenix’s face, is all about a slow reveal that has you leaning in, closer and closer, until Ramsay has you in her grip. And it’s only ninety minutes later that she finally lets you go.
An astonishingly effective mood piece and character study, You Were Never Really Here is a haunting and darkly beautiful film that feels like a slowly twisting knife to the heart.