Watching Joaquin Phoenix work is reason enough to see this film. Jonny Greenwood’s score is another.
Scottish director Lynne Ramsey films like “ Molvern Callar” ( 2002) never tell a story chronologically. In “You Were Never Really Here” , Phoenix does want he does best, plays a reality-taxed, wracked individual with acute visceral feelings. He is a PTSD sufferer, who is hired to rescue a U.S. Senator’s thirteen-year-old daughter. As Joe, he has flash backs to childhood abuse and war atrocities. Child sex rings and sex traffickers add to the taut tone. The tenseness is charged with a wavering electric current that keeps the viewer apprehensive throughout. We long for ennui, or at least a respite from sound whispering voices and plastic bags pulled tightly over faces.
Back exits, trash cans, police sirens, late night terminals and wet alleyways predominate. Joe’s abode with his dementia-ridden mother ( Judith Roberts) offers no respite. It, too, becomes a murder scene. Weird scenarios play out. His mother watches “Psych” alone and plays “gothcha!” games on him. We see his battle scars as he puts her to bed. City dogs bark as he cleans up her water logged bathroom. He chastised her for the 1972 cream cheese in the fridge, and polishes silver with her. He likes green jelly beans. It is hard to see him as a vigilante, a killer for hire.
The Senator is as creepy as Joe’s weapon of choice, the hammer. His daughter Nina ( Ekaterina Samsonov) must be retrieved. He wants the kidnappers/brothel owners hurt. He wants Nina for unfatherly reasons we glean. This tawdry storyline drags us in more than most viewers will wish to be. Jonny Greenwood’s score and Joaquin Phoenix’s dazzling performance makes the horrific vice psychologically edgy. Joe respectfully buries his mother in lake waters, and we recall the scene where they sang old show tunes together. As Phoenix floats submerged in the waters stillness, we wonder if this netherworld will bring him peace. Can a murderer gain our empathy? Can a soldier’s bizarre suffering make him something to be feared? While author Jonathan Ames may consider his protagonist an avenging angel, most will see Joe as a damaged Marine and former FBI operative, who has kind underpinnings though he is a trained killing machine.