Some movies provide so much vivid detail about a character that you could practically write a biography. Lynne Ramsay’s mesmerizing You Were Never Really Here (based on Jonathan Ames’ novel) is a different sort of experience, immersing us in impressions and emotions while offering only glimpses of factual details. We never learn our protagonist’s last name or what agency he works for, and his childhood and career path are conveyed only in fragments of memory. Yet these fragments haunt us the way they haunt him. We don’t know his story so much as we feel it, but we feel it deeply.
Joe, played by Joaquin Phoenix at peak dishevelment, is a veteran of the military, the FBI, and a ruinous childhood. He has PTSD that both motivates and impedes his present work as a hired gun who extracts minors from sex-trafficking situations. (“Hired gun” is a metaphor. Joe’s preferred weapon is a ball-peen hammer.) He lives with his decrepit mother (Judith Roberts) and makes Psycho jokes with her, but flashback snippets suggest mother and son have endured a lot together. His tenderness with her, in scenes that parallel and contrast his coldly efficient crime-scene-cleaning and body-disposal techniques, reminds us that Joe isn’t merely a killer.
Things go haywire when Joe receives an assignment from his boss, John (John Doman), who works out of an office with degrees on the wall but is apparently connected to an extra-legal (government-related?) anti-trafficking agency. The new task is to rescue the daughter (Ekaterina Samsonov) of a state senator (Alex Manette) who’s involved in the governor’s (Alessandro Nivola) reelection campaign; given those particulars, it’s almost inevitable that Joe will uncover a conspiracy darker than he imagined.
The film is calm and measured, even hypnotic, with agitation rumbling beneath the surface. While that tone is similar to Ramsay’s previous film, the ponderous, nightmarish We Need to Talk About Kevin, it reminded me more of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive: the taciturn, almost nameless hero; the electronic score (in this case by Jonny Greenwood, master of discord); the brooding deliberateness that might come across as boring if you’re expecting more mayhem; the bursts of violence that shock you out of your reverie. But where Ryan Gosling’s driver was inscrutable, Phoenix’s Joe grants us access to his emotions, adding a layer of profound sadness to this jarring, impressionistic underworld thriller.