The wolves stalk the city streets at night, preying on little girls. And Joe hunts the wolves with a hammer in hand.
There are places with underage girls, places with electronic locks and security guards, where patrons pay top money for a night with the girls. Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) specializes in rescuing abducted girls from such a place. Get in touch with his handler with cash ready, and a picture of the girl, Joe will bring her back at a designated time, in a rundown hotel where the staff pays no mind to customers’ comings and goings.
Very few movies depict violence like You Were Never Really Here do, and Scottish director Lynne Ramsay drove home the impact with each encounter. Fights are not caped heroes with highly stylized choreography, nor are they clean and glamorous. Violence is messy; it’s wiping the blood off a hammer, it’s Joe fixing himself up in a dark alley. Violence is a state of mind that Joe needs to work up the courage to stand into. The job requires preparation. Before each new assignment, Joe shops for supplies, including but not limited to a roll of duct tape to bind and gag, and a hammer to dish out justice in places where none could be found. He prepares himself mentally and straightens the parts of his mind that still hold his sanity together. Only then is he ready to hunt. You Were Never Really Here is the kind of movie that spends more time in planning and cleaning up than the swift but brutal execution. The movie nurses the throbbing bloodlust like no other.
Joe suffers from PTSD from his childhood abuse, his military service, and his time as an FBI agent investigating human trafficking. The trips down the underbelly of the city certainly were not good for his mental health. Whenever he was not on a job or taking care of his old mother, he was trying to kill himself in various ways: asphyxiation by a plastic bag, jumping in front of a moving train, or the good old bullet to the head. Joe does not have a lot to live for. Under Joe’s stoicism were repressed memories that would bubble up to the surface of his mind, if he was not too careful. And when a job to rescue a senator’s daughter, Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), went wrong, the events transpired in the film really test the limit of his sanity, and Phoenix made every second of his screen time count.
Phoenix’s scenery-chewing presence in this movie is absolutely mesmerizing. Communicating his emotions primarily through his eyes, he was simultaneously an unstoppable force of nature and a vulnerable man scarred in both mind and body. Jonny Greenwood’s unconventional score is a perfect fit for Joe: the utilization of primitive sounds allowed the music to follow him into the dark recesses of his mind. The score worked in tandem with Phoenix’s performance and enabled his emotional weight to hit the audience full force during the short bursts of tension.
You Were Never Really Here is a raw and haunting crime thriller that never runs short of an atmosphere. Though it’s a movie of few words, the brooding mood speaks for itself.