In You Were Never Really Here, Joaquin Phoenix continues his dogged campaign to be our crustiest actor. Nothing tops his disheveled turn as “Joaquin Phoenix” in the similarly titled pseudo-documentary I’m Not Here—ever the gold standard for an actor trashing his own good looks—but Phoenix looks remarkably awful in this new thriller, which earned him the Best Actor prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. His hired killer is a pot-bellied, nest-haired wreck, raising the question: Is cultivating the “gutter-sleeping hobo” look really the best way for a hit man to slip in and out of dicey situations? Director Lynne Ramsay has suggested that her goal was to upend our expectations of the smooth, sleek professional assassin. If so, she and Phoenix have succeeded.
They’ve succeeded in other ways too, because You Were Never Really Here casts a hypnotic spell. The movie’s opening moments mystify: piercing sounds, garish colors, the intuition of a violent incident. This is consistent with Ramsay’s bold style, but it’s also the world as experienced by Phoenix’s character, Joe, whose grungy existence may be haunted by wartime experiences and his own childhood trauma. One must frame it as “may be” because there’s much about the movie we have to guess at. Ramsay, the Scottish director of Ratcatcher and We Need to Talk About Kevin, scatters story information like tea leaves at the bottom of a cup, so it actually takes a while just to understand that Joe is indeed a hitman and not a free-floating creep.
The movie’s fractured approach disguises the familiarity of the plot (drawn from Jonathan Ames’ book): A hired gun gets involved with dangerous and politically connected people, violates his professional code when the gig goes awry, and pays the price. On this job, Joe liberates an adolescent girl (Ekaterina Samsonov) in a sequence rendered partly with grainy closed-circuit cameras—a tour de force of suspense. Joe does his work with a hammer, not a gun, and Ramsay spares us little of the subsequent skull-cracking violence.
We’re so far inside Joe’s head that other characters tend to be blurry impressions, although Judith Roberts—amazingly, the mystery woman who lives across the hall in David Lynch’s Eraserhead—turns in a memorable performance as Joe’s mother. The jagged cuts and nerve-plucking soundtrack (including Jonny Greenwood’s music) make the film a sensation-crammed haunted house, one reason to be grateful it clocks in at less than 90 minutes. Phoenix is in complete sync with Ramsay’s cryptic style—he slugs through the action as though bearing the weight of a thousand unspoken guilts.
For all its 21st-century techno-sheen, You Were Never Really Here has moments straight from a Hollywood Western, and it isn’t a stretch to say that things still come down to a character deciding that “a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.” (I never could understand why people mock that phrase; it’s a lucid moral imperative and a solid storytelling sentiment—suitable for either sex.) You’ll know exactly where that moment comes in this film, and as difficult and inscrutable as Joe is, you’ll be right there with him.