With a plot straight out of an exploitation film, Lynne Ramsay radically dismembers the expectations of this tawdry material into something mesmerizing. Edited to the point of almost being impressionistic, You Were Never Really here is a film that will live in your mind long after the credits roll.
The film concerns Joe (Joaquin Phoenix). Joe is a man with a code who recovers kidnapped young girls and has a brutal nature when dealing with the sexual abusers who take them. We see his routine of getting his dispatch from someone and executing the job with savage efficiency. While it may be easy to think of something like the Punisher here, Ramsey focuses on the psychological state of Joe instead of the violence he inflicts. Joe is suicidal, just barely getting by with the help of lots of pills and repression. He suffers from PTSD episodes that render him paralyzed. Small things like the smiles of teenage girls can set him off, unable to hide the horrors he has seen.
Ramsey is working at the height of her powers here. Her last film was seven years ago, the fantastic We Need To Talk About Kevin. You can feel her having toiled over this story to cut any of the fat away from it. The film is a tense 95-minute experience that wastes no shot or moment as Joe begins looking for the daughter of a senator only to get wrapped up in a ring of human trafficking. Ramsey avoids gratuitous and even cathartic moments of violence but never lets up on the tension. It is precisely because of the omission of violence at times that the film fascinates. Ramsey seeks to explore the savage nature of humans and she has found her muse in Phoenix.
Phoenix has been on a killer streak as of late but his performance here as Joe may be his best yet. He commands every moment of the film. Ramsey uses his bare emotions to tell her story and You Were Never Really Here depends on his layered mannerisms. It is his performance that roots the film in something real as Ramsey blurs the film's narrative beats with her commanding style. It is the partnership of these two forces that pushed the film into 'must see' territory. Jonny Greenwood delivers another stunning score full of beauty and dissonance.
For all of the film's grim subject matter, You Were Never Really Here is of hopeful intent. One could read the film as a statement about how good men react to violence against women. Joe may use a hammer to kill sexual abusers but Ramsey has used a scalpel to make You Were Never Really Here. It is a precise film that only she could have made.