Ramsay provides viewers with an extremely tactile and highly emotional experience. The vivid, haunting, opening images feature Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) with a plastic bag wrapped around his head. A closing scene in a brightly lit diner is equally memorable. In between, there are many brutal, bloody, and beautiful moments. One fight scene unfolds through a cracked mirror on the ceiling. An underwater sequence is quietly powerful, as is a shot of a dying man grabbing another man’s hand just before he expires. There are some indelible corpses, too.
Wisely, most of the violence happens off screen. That said, when people are shot—or attacked with a hammer, Joe’s deadly weapon of choice—the action is jarring; it often happens before or after viewers expect it. This is just one of the many brilliant decisions Ramsay made in telling this simple story of Joe, a hired gun who rescues Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), a young girl in a bad situation, only to discover things are in fact worse.
Joe is a damaged character. It is not just his big, beefy body that is full of scars, but also his mind, which keeps flashing on traumas he suffered as a child or during the Gulf War. Phoenix injects Joe with equal parts weariness and daring. A scene where he plays a game with a knife while waiting for his mother in the bathroom illustrates his uneasy mix of despair and boredom. While Joe is good at his job—watch him on a stakeout or in action—he is constantly troubled and battling internal demons he cannot control. It’s a remarkable performance. Phoenix deservedly won the Best Actor prize at Cannes last year for this role.
You Were Never Really Here focuses more on mood than plot, which is why it is so extraordinary. Ramsay uses the sound design so well that viewers might just flinch at the sound of a hammer dropping in one scene. The soundtrack is infused with music and chatter and sounds that create a tapestry that simply infects the film, its characters, and the audience.
Even if viewers feel the film’s camerawork and sound design is showy, there is an emotional core to the film that really surprises and delights. There are parallels between Joe and Nina—from visual images of their hair wet and dripping, to more oblique scenes of them practicing coping mechanisms, like counting, to deal with their traumas. The bond that develops between these characters in their brief screen time together is quite moving.
You Were Never Really Here may seem like a typical film noir about an alienated antihero who immerses himself in society’s seedy underbelly, finding corruption at every turn. And it is. But in Ramsay’s assured hands, it becomes something else, and something truly phenomenal.
You Were Never Really Here opens in Philly theaters today.