Joaquin Phoenix assumes a hooded, bearlike presence in “You Were Never Really Here,” a disquieting urban thriller directed by Lynne Ramsay. As Joe, a taciturn hit man whose specialty is rescuing young women who have been abducted and forced into sex trafficking, Phoenix is a lurking, skulking bundle of anxieties and retributive obsession.
“You Were Never Really Here,” adapted from a 2013 novel by Jonathan Ames, owes more than a passing debt to “Taxi Driver,” with which it shares an unsettling depiction of unresolved trauma, urban claustrophobia and male redemption predicated on female suffering. Ramsay makes bold, counterintuitive choices as a director, offering quiet interludes and quick, shardlike flashbacks by way of characterization.
That approach dispenses with the usual windy expository passages that bog down so many movies, trusting the audience to piece together the broken fragments of Joe’s past life, which include parental abuse, hitches in Afghanistan and the FBI, and his recent career as an assassin-with-a-higher-purpose. The result is a drama that conveys an exceptionally vivid sense of impending tension and dread.
Phoenix offers his bulked-out body as yet another canvas for clues to Joe’s clearly anguished past. The pulled-back hair, the tattoos and scars, the private rituals and bouts of explosive violence with a ball peen hammer all suggest a primal unhealed wound and — when Joe is given the assignment to save Nina, the daughter of a powerful New York politician — ultimate salvation.
As beautiful and compelling as Ramsay’s filmmaking and Phoenix’s central performance are, the degree to which viewers will buy “You Were Never Really Here” depends on the degree to which they accept yet another display of febrile vigilante brutality motivated by sexual violence perpetrated against young girls. In many ways, this film is just a tarted-up version of “Taken,” however artfully Ramsay has disguised and deconstructed its pulpy contours.
There’s no denying Ramsay’s artistry in “You Were Never Really Here,” which qualifies as a brilliant exercise in formalism and deeply psychological portraiture. Still, there’s also no escaping the fact that she has marshaled her gifts in service to a played-out story drenched in pseudo-angsty-macho wish-fulfillment fantasies.
“You Were Never Really Here” is a good film, maybe even a great one. But I can’t honestly say that I liked it.
(At Town Center.)
‘You Were Never Really Here’
Rated R for strong violence, disturbing and grisly images, coarse language and brief nudity.