You Were Never Really Here, based on the novel by Jonathan Ames, is an incredibly violent, unflinching picture. But Ramsay is an intelligent, thoughtful filmmaker, way more interested in characters and mood to be distracted by the many horrors on show. She doesn't dwell on the violence, and instead views it through the eye of a security camera, or a half-seen reflection in a mirror. Sometimes even the sound alone, combined with Jonny Greenwood strange and hypnotic score, is more than enough to creature a vivid picture in your mind of what is transpiring. Ramsay simply isn't interested in visualising the bloodshed, and this shrewd approach skilfully makes the many horrific acts committed by Joe all the more wince-inducing. Her focus rests purely with Joe himself, beginning with a portrait of a man long pushed over the edge, before journeying even more inward and downward.
Joe earns his keep by hiring himself out for covert missions that may require action not necessarily permitted by law. A purposefully confusing and violent opening sets the tone: Joe is simply not to be messed with, and does not flinch at the possibility of violence. He has a reputation for brutality, which is precisely the reason he is paid by frustrated parents to find missing kids, usually those kidnapped for sex trafficking purposes, by man-in-the-middle John McCleary (The Wire's John Doman). In his downtime, he also cares for his elderly mother (Judith Roberts). Ambitious young New York Senator Albert Votto (Alex Manette) wants Joe to locate his missing daughter Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), and carry out whatever it takes to make her abductors suffer for their crimes. Joe accepts the job, and it doesn't take long for him to find the shell-shocked teenager. What happens next would be venturing into spoiler territory, but Joe is sent down a dark path to redemption, unravelling a conspiracy way above his pay grade.
Despite what many critics have said, You Were Never Really Here isn't Lynne Ramsay's best film, and will surely be her most divisive. Some parts just don't work: Although it is by no means integral to film's themes and focus, the revelations of Joe's investigations may have attracted Liam Neeson with a vastly different director at the helm, and the final scene, which touches on fantasy, clashes uncomfortably with what came before. But these issues don't affect the film's sheer impact. At its best, You Were Never Really Here is pure cinema, dragging you through the squalor by the neck and plunging you into the mind of a truly damaged soul. I haven't felt so beaten up - in a good way - by a movie since the first time I saw Elem Klimov's Come and See. As Joe, Phoenix has probably never been better. He is a ticking time-bomb, favouring the use of a hammer against his enemies. In one of the film's finest scenes, Joe is asked by a young girl to take a picture of her and her friends. He mumbles and agrees, before a close-up of the girl reveals her to be crying. Is this a hallucination, or has she seen the pain etches across his face? Reality and dreams are melded together into a 90-minute punch to the gut, and Ramsay proves once again why she is one of the greatest working filmmakers.
Directed by: Lynne Ramsay
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Judith Roberts, Ekaterina Samsonov, John Doman, Alessandro Nivola