Based on the book by Jonathan Ames, writer-director Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here is an effective character study and acting showcase for Joaquin Phoenix.
Phoenix plays Joe, a shadowy military vet who rescues children from dangerous situations by any means necessary. For his latest case, he is asked to rescue a senator’s daughter (Ekaterina Samsonov), who has fallen victim to human traffickers. Naturally, things don’t go as planned.
That could be the setup to a 1980s action movie, but that’s not how Ramsay plays it in her film. Yes, Joe kills a lot of people (often with a hammer, his signature weapon), but it’s not played in a heroic, rah-rah way. The movie’s greatest strength is the way in which Phoenix plays Joe as someone perpetually on the verge of a nervous breakdown. He’s torn apart by PTSD from his combat service, his own childhood abuse, and the weight of the violence he perpetrates on a regular basis. He’s both sympathetic and scary simultaneously.
You Were Never Really Here is not an easy film to watch, but Ramsay and Phoenix give it enough humanity to make it worth a look.