You Were Never Really Here could be one of the most intense action movies by an art house director since Nicolas Winding Refn gave us Drive. Scottish filmmaker Lynne Ramsay made her U.S. debut with We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011), a drama driven by the violent nature of a young boy. Now she looks to Jonathan Ames’ novella about a grown man whose experience growing up in the shadow of the domestic battlefield of his parents and his later experience on the very real battlefield of the Middle East informs his work as a vigilante whose choice of weapon is a “Master Series” ball-pein hammer.
The always excellent Joaquin Phoenix plays Joe, who takes jobs as a rescuer of young girls kidnapped into sex trafficking in between caring for his aging mother (Judith Roberts). When a senator (Alex Manette) hires him to save his daughter Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), things get complicated and messy. The movie is quickly paced and hardly lingers on quiet time between characters yet never wastes those slight moments, from brief flashbacks to mundane scenes of domesticity. Helping to propel the action is the film’s layered and hyperactive score by Jonny Greenwood, which features cacophonous percussion, digital flourishes and stinging strings filled with counterpoint.
But ultimately, the movie is about the anticipation and aftermath of violence, which can be graphic but never feels gratuitous or indulgent. Ramsay seems more concerned with the results of violence both physical and psychological. It works as representative of the protagonist’s mental state. Joe, after all, is the product of PTSD, not just as a war veteran but as the progeny of an abusive father. As one can expect, Phoenix, who looks as if he followed a regimen of shoulder shrugs at the gym along with a diet of pizza for the role, gives an engaging performance. I truly believe he is America’s greatest living actor, and it’s a shame that the often disturbing characters he takes on seems to put off the award-givers. There’s an added challenge to make this character engaging because Ramsay spends little time with exposition. This is about a man of action in a movie that isn’t your typical action movie (you won’t see The Rock pulling off lying next to a dying bad guy singing along to an oldies radio station).
You Were Never Really Here shows you can make intense action movies with humanity and a concern for the after effects of violence. It’s not a pleasant film, and it shouldn’t be, but it’s well made and assured. Since her early short films, Ramsay has showed a sensitive attention to the effects of action on the human psyche using images above dialogue (she began her career in visual arts as a photographer). This may be her most visceral movie yet, but it’s no less sensitive to the results of decisions and their consequences on the fragile bonds between family members and fellow man.
You Were Never Really Here runs 89 minutes and is rated R. It opens in our Miami area at AMC Aventura 24, AMC Sunset Place 24, South Beach Regal 18 Miami Beach, and the Landmark at Merrick Park on Friday, April 27. Further north, in Broward County it opens at the Regal Cypress Creek Station Stadium 16 and the Classic Gateway Theatre. For screenings in other parts of the U.S., visit this link and select “get tickets.” Amazon Studios sent us an online screener for the purpose of this review.
SCREENING UPDATE: O Cinema Wynwood will host a theatrical run from Friday, May 25, to Thurday, May 31. Get tickets here.