Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) is a troubled man, both thanks to his past and his present. He used to be a soldier in the U.S. Army, but experiences there left him unable to function very well in society and he now makes his living as a hitman, wielding a hammer against those who have done his employers wrong. He lives with his very elderly mother (Judith Roberts) who spends her time watching television, and he looks after her as best he can, but as far as he can reason he acknowledges he has trouble looking after himself, with too-frequent attempts at suffocating under plastic, connected to a nightmarish childhood memory he cannot let go of. Therefore, he loses himself in his work...
You Were Never Really Here, a title that goes unexplained during the ninety minutes or so this takes to unfold, was a tale drawn from the pages of a book by Jonathan Ames, who was onboard as a producer, though the impression was that the creative powerhouse keeping it all in motion was director and screenwriter Lynne Ramsay. That said, it was very much a collaboration with star Phoenix whose intensity was rarely as effective as here, convincingly essaying a man utterly at the end of his tether; yet the plot was a simple one, something that could have slotted into a Frank MillerSin City instalment, such was its adherence to pulp fiction and its attendant violence.
Ramsay was not an action flick director by any means, which was why this came across as far more of an art movie than a thriller, though technically a thriller was what it was with its trappings of kidnappings, gangsters, corruption and the placing of the hero in deep peril. Not too long into this, he is asked by a Senator (Alex Manette) to track down his runaway daughter (Ekaterina Samsonov) who he believes has been picked up by child sex traffickers, a scenario that disgusts Joe. This revulsion was evident in every frame when he sets about his job, his method of smashing the miscreants under the hammer akin to squashing bugs in a pest exterminator sort of way.
The film could have been made as your typical straight to DVD actioner with this plot, yet its off-kilter leanings indicated Ramsay was keen to develop some insight into what made a violent man tick, even a violent man using that for what he considers "good". Whether she succeeded or not was debatable, as the most we learned was that a terrible past can make for a terrible present too, the flashbacks, some mere seconds long, to the awful events Joe is struggling with filling in the background but not exactly dwelling on the protagonist's mental workings. This was odd, since we were so entrenched in the trauma Joe suffers that it informed everything he did, so even when he was joking with his mother about watching Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho on the television, his reaction is to make mock stabbing motions.
He does that in another scene when she is in the bathroom, too, a subtle (or maybe not) dig at men who still live with their mothers into middle age and are not exactly benevolently depicted in popular fiction as a rule: this item did little to counter that. But it was not really a social realism Ramsay appeared to be interested in, as the plot was, as mentioned, something latter-period Jean Claude Van Damme or Scott Adkins would have been able to tackle, and maybe with the same amount of strain on their characters' psyche too, though the actual fighting setpieces would have been a lot more elaborate than anything we were served up in this. Ramsay did not have the means nor the inclination to develop that kind of sequence, so a lot of the bloodshed happens away from her camera; we simply watch the aftermath as people die, or have died already. If it had not been for Phoenix as a man weighed down by the heaviest of demons, an air of "seen it all before" would hang over this; combine that with the director's atmospheric treatment and the results offered a curious take on familiar material. Music by Jonny Greenwood.