Joaquin Phoenix plays Joe, a burly hitman looking after his ailing mother (Judith Roberts) while coping with a severe case of PTSD caused by a triple whammy of childhood abuse, FBI raids and the horrors of military combat. His “job” is rescuing underage girls from sex traffickers. which he dispatches with a ballpeen hammer. (Obviously, this bleak, brutal film is not for squeamish viewers).
Writer/director Lynne Ramsay (We Need to Talk about Kevin) bases her screenplay on a novella by Jonathan Ames (Bored to Death.) While the book offers glimpses of Joe’s method and madness (well, sorta) Phoenix and Ramsay use only the actor’s eyes and facial expressions (partially hidden by a ferocious beard) and judicious use of millisecond flashbacks. to conjure up the character. (Phoenix has less than a page of dialogue). The actor meets the challenge with another fierce and focused character study. (This is, after all, the same performer who famously pulled out a sink from a wall while filming I Walk the Line. According to showbiz legend, he was not expecting the prop sink to completely give. Rather than call for another take – as I’ve seen in countless DVD extras- the actor masked his surprise and completed the scene in character.)
Ms. Ramsay shows scenes of brutal violence while Rosie and the Originals’ exquisite oldie “Angel Baby” and Engelbert’s syrupy “After the Lovin’ ” play on the soundtrack. This has been interpreted by several reviewers as examples of Ms. Ramsay’s midnight black sense of humor.
In one riveting scene, the carnage is shown as viewed on the building’s security cameras.
Not to start including spoilers in my “reviews ” at this late date but there is a scene towards the end of the film that may make you doubt the truth of Joe’s point of view. (He is not the most reliable narrator, after all.)
Yes, it is bleak. Yes, it can be violent. However, if you can handle it, You Were Never Really Here is worth viewing (it’s now available on DVD) for the force of Phoenix’s performance and the skills and unique touch of the Glasgow-born Ms. Ramsay (surprisingly, this is only her fourth feature-length film since her 1999 debut Ratcatcher. In addition to the films already mentioned, her resume also includes 2002’s highly acclaimed Morvern Callar. Needless to say, this is onewriter/director who chooses projects carefully and on her own terms.