Scottish writer-director Lynne Ramsay doesn’t do comfortable. First there was 2011’s ‘We Need To Talk About Kevin’ about a mother who feels guilty about her son being responsible for a school shooting and now we have ‘You Were Never Really Here’ where we follow a hitman who is burnt out on all the violence and has to fight his suicidal thoughts.
A very intense and bearded Joaquin Phoenix plays Joe, a former military who now earns a living by tracking down the missing children of New York’s elite and bringing them back home. Every mission starts with a visit to a hardware store where he picks up a new hammer. And no, that’s not because he nails it every single time.
We don’t get to actually see a lot of the violence. Ramsay prefers to keep it off-screen, showing Joe setting up for the kill or dealing with the aftermath instead. But that doesn’t mean it’s any less brutal. Hands are being crushed, heads are being bashed in and throats are being slit. Both Joe’s modus operandi and Ramsay’s storytelling feel very methodical and calculated, making ‘You Were Never Really Here’ a very grim and smoldering affair. But at the same time the movie is not without its tender moments. Like when Joe sits with a dying victim while singing along to Charlene’s ‘I’ve Never Been to Me’ or his scenes with Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), the 13-year-old daughter of a senator he’s been hired to rescue from a bunch of pedophiles.
This is not ‘Taken’ or ‘The Equalizer’. If anything, you could compare this movie with ‘Taxi Driver’. But even more than that, ‘You Were Never Really Here’ is its own thing. Ramsay does her own thing with the story, Phoenix acts his heart out with feverish intensity and the score by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood lends the movie a pulsating rhythm that makes things even more claustrophobic.