In You Were Never Really Here, Joaquin Phoenix is a guy who tracks down a kidnapped girl delivered into sex slavery, and like that other guy, he's possessed of a particular set of skills, acquired over a long career, etc.

His skills, though, are less refined. They involve going to the hardware store to get a ball-peen hammer, and his method is to bludgeon whoever gets in his way.

And often he cries afterward.

Phoenix's Joe is a leg breaker on the verge of a nervous breakdown. He's plagued by flashbacks of an abusive childhood and a horrific tour of duty somewhere in Iraq or Afghanistan.

He seems barely in control of himself as he staggers through his latest assignment: recovering the politician's kidnapped daughter (Ekaterina Samsonov), now a captive made available to creepy New York men.

It's not revealing too much to say that he finds her, and that in their brief time together, they bond in a strange way – intuitively understanding each other as survivors of trauma, in Joe's case multiplied by a lifetime of grisly experiences.

You Were Never Really Here takes several more substantial plot turns, the meaning of which are often hard to decipher. Director Lynne Ramsay delivers the movie (a brief 89 minutes) in a mad jumble of filters and colors and angles — fake-out scenes, flashbacks, and cockeyed action sequences. Murder piles upon murder, and the victims are often characters who've barely been introduced. Almost as if they were never really there — life is gruesome chaos, the movie seems to say, and all of us are incidental characters in a dispiriting drama.

The move is at times too chaotic — there were often times when I had no idea what was happening, or what some of the images meant. Yet there is also evidence of wickedly careful design – a scene of Joe singing with his mother (Judith Roberts) echoes later in what may be the strangest musical duet ever committed to film, eerily memorable and effective.

The film likes to circle back on itself in intricate ways – references to Psycho inform (in a bleakly funny way) Joe's relationship with his mother, and show up in Ramsay's visual presentation of concluding scenes.

Somewhere in all of this (based on a Jonathan Ames novella) is a story about the psychic cost to those who are assigned to live violent lives, the way abuse begets abuse.

On screen, it's not very deeply felt. Phoenix gives his all, but Ramsay plops us down in the middle of Joe's breakdown, before we can get our emotional bearings. We figure out who he was — abused child, traumatized soldier – before we get a sense of who he is.

Other characters have even less time to gain substance, and as a consequence, the movie's inventive ending registers as an empty twist.


You Were Never Really Here

  • Directed by Lynne Ramsay. With Joaquin Phoenix, Ekaterina Samsonov, Judith Roberts, John Doman, and Alex Manette. Distributed by Amazon Studios.
  • Running time: 1 hour, 39 mins.
  • Parents guide: R (violence)
  • Playing at: Ritz East