Joaquin Phoenix stars as troubled contract killer Joe in Lynne Ramsey's harrowing You Were Never Really Here. Blurbs have made the film out to be a 21st Century version of Taxi Driver and while there are similarities, Never Really Here stands on its own as a pulpy modern story zigzaging through a fractured chess board.
A former soldier and FBI agent, Jeff makes a living breaking up sex trade rings, gaining a reputation for brutality towards those who exploit children. Joe also cares for his elderly Mom who has early stage dementia. In one scene have an amusing exchange on Psycho. After completing a job in Cincinnati, Joe returns to New York and gets a new assignment that involves the teenage daughter of a politician.
From the get go, it's clear the assignment is different from the others. The film morphs into a paranoid thriller. Joe's an enigma throughout, a credit to Phoenix's committed performance (we would expect nothing less - arguably the best working actor today). Not necessarily a vigilante, he's more of a grungy superhero with a history of trauma. Joe's life mission is to end the torment of others, with the possibility of ending his own internal misery.
Ramsey's economical direction and bare knuckle editing keep the running time to a sparse 90 minutes. The violence is never stylized, the emphasis is on the aftermath. There's no exorcising bloodletting in the style of Taxi Driver. We're told just enough to keep the story from spiraling into narrative incoherence, it's all movement and action, an effect enhanced by Jonny Greenwood's score.
Greenwood's music is a striking contrast to his period work on Phantom Thread. Here the score moves from pulsating rhythms to classic orchestral, crafting a hypnotic sense of dread. From top to bottom, all the elements of film making come together in You Were Never Really Here.
Except for one minor thing. In Taxi Driver, screenwriter Paul Schrader allowed us to get inside the psychology of Travis Bickle. But Joe remains an unknowable monolith. He may be fighting a losing battle, but he fights nonetheless. Is it all an excuse to be brutal for a good cause or a modern day shepherd protecting the weak?