At night, the New York of You Were Never Really Here is foul and foreboding. In daytime, signs also appear of rottenness and brutality. Though she has no part in the ongoing events of the story, a woman with a badly bruised face is briefly seen standing on the same outer-borough subway station where Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), the film’s protagonist, is waiting for a train. She has clearly been punched by her husband or partner.
A worse atrocity is later visited on a woman (Judith Roberts) who is close to Joe. His discovery of it it echoes the experience of Meg Ryan’s Frannie in Jane Campion’s In the Cut (2003), a gruesome feminist thriller set in post-9/11 New York that is analogous to You Were Never Really Here in its mood of creeping dread.
To name Joe as the hero of You Were Never Really Here wouldn’t feel right, no matter that his job—rescuing the victims of pedophiles—entails the kind of heroic acts that have left his body permanently scarred. He goes to work with a hammer that he uses to despatch men who have sex with children.
Sometimes writer-director Lynne Ramsey shows Joe battering his victims; elliptically edited by Joe Bini, the film just as often skips Joe’s attacks and cuts to the bodies of the men Joe has brained. No one gets in the way of this most ruthless of ruthless avengers. Knowing he will always prevail, he is unfazed by the thought of tackling two outsized bodyguards before he goes after his main prey in the movie’s climactic hunt.
This is to rescue—for the second time—a blonde waif, Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), the preadolescent daughter of Senator Albert Votto (Alex Manette), who has charged Joe not only with finding the girl but with hurting the predators. The first time Joe finds Nina, she is a blank slate—it’s as if her feelings having been erased by abuse. But she is not entirely numb and recognizes that Joe is her guardian angel because he has killed her rapists and doesn’t want to touch her. The scenes between Phoenix and Samsonov are gentle and touching.
An interpolated shot of Votto offering the unclad Nina to his perverted political colleague Governor Williams (Alessandro Nivola) might make some viewers retch. This scene might be imagined by Joe—perhaps accurately—since his stream of consciousness drives the film. Recollections of his service as a marine and working for the FBI flicker to its surface; blink and you’ll miss them.
More unforgettable are memories of past victims he’s found: a staring little boy, stunned, without clothes; an unlit room full of sleeping or unconscious little girls. It is not stretching a point to say that, in their horror, these shots recall the filmed survivors of the Nazi concentration camps.
You Were Never Really Here has been beautifully if discordantly crafted. It boasts a disturbing sound design that amps up industrial noise and car sounds—the white noise in Joe’s head—and a thrumming, un-hummable soundtrack by Jonny Greenwood. Cinematographer Thomas Townend deploys a camera that wanders where it wants, sometimes into cul de sacs. The film’s look borders on the impressionistic; closeups of objects that seem obscure until their use is explained suggest Ramsey is striving for a conundrum effect.
Based on a novella by Jonathan Ames, the movie treads a well-trodden path. Too much like Taxi Driver (especially), Hardcore, and Mona Lisa, similar stories of men setting out to save ruined young women in an infernal city, it exists mainly as a window into a mind that has been over-exposed to obscenity.
Like the soldiers traumatized by the sights they saw at Auschwitz and other camps, Joe has been psychologically derailed by his work. The bearded, bulked-up Phoenix plays him as a mumbling, shambling bear of a man who fantasizes about killing himself. He is a veteran of too much bloodshed and human ugliness, too damaged to enter into lasting relationships, and all he can hope for is the occasional gesture of hope—someone like Nina telling him, for instance, that it’s a beautiful day.
You Were Never Really Here is currently on release in the US.