An ordinary hardware-store hammer is the weapon of choice for Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), a depressed war veteran turned assassin for hire, in Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here. As the character notes in the 2013 novella by Jonathan Ames on which the film is based, Joe prefers hammers because they’re low-cost, brutally efficient, and reliably frightening. The sight of a raised hammer seems to touch “some universal place of terror in the human mind.” Ramsay’s fourth feature operates on the viewer in much the same way. With a minimum of resources, she creates a primal atmosphere of dread, then assaults the viewer’s consciousness in a single, sharp blow.
Only 89 minutes long and dialogue-free for long stretches, this austere film could reasonably be accused of underplotting, especially if you approach it as the neo-noir crime thriller it sometimes gestures toward being. The sinister workings of the pedophilic sex ring Joe is hired to infiltrate never come into full focus, and Ramsay’s freeform shifts among present-day narrative, flashbacks, and fantasy sequences make for some moments of legitimate confusion about what’s taking place in the real world and what’s happening only in the ravaged landscape of Joe’s PTSD-wracked mind. There’s a fine line between richly ambivalent endings and those that just make you go “Wha?”, and YWNRH’s rug-pulling, nerve-shredding last few scenes walk that line.
But Ramsay—a notoriously exacting and unprolific auteur who walked out on her last project, the indie Western Jane Got a Gun, after a contentious dispute with the film’s producers—has found an artistic soul mate in the enigmatic Phoenix. Without his off-kilter and at times grimly funny performance, this might have risked becoming just another of those movies in which an emotionally remote tough guy gets a new lease on life—or at least glimpses a flicker of hope for the future—after rescuing a young girl from a horrifying situation. But just as Ramsay is less concerned with violence itself than with the psychic scars it leaves behind, so Phoenix insists less on Joe’s brute physical strength (which is considerable) than on his permanent internal state of near-dissolution.
We first meet Joe in a closet, trying to suffocate himself with a plastic dry-cleaning bag. This, we soon learn, is a hobby of his, playing chicken with the specter of self-annihilation. I can’t imagine another actor who could so effectively convey not just the sadness and horror but the humor of such a moment. When Joe’s elderly mother (Judith Roberts), with whom he lives, hollers for him from the next room, he rips a hole in the bag with the weary resignation of a man forced to interrupt his favorite TV show, not his own suicide attempt. Phoenix won the Best Actor award at Cannes last year for the performance, and it’s not hard to see why. He’s an intuitive actor rather than an introspective one, and though he transformed himself physically for the part—bulking up to resemble not a buff superassassin but a burly hood gone to seed—his performance is mercifully free of the labored fussiness of the watch-me-act school. Phoenix’s Joe, like his perpetually stoned private eye in Inherent Vice or the troubled would-be cult member he played in The Master, reacts to external circumstances according to some mysterious internal weather all his own, so that at any moment he seems equally likely to laugh, cry, or fly into a violent rage. Joe has occasional moments of tenderness, too, like when he joins his mildly senile but still attentive mother in a kitchen-table duet of “ ‘A’ You’re Adorable.”
Ekaterina Samsonov, the 15-year-old actress who plays the sex-trafficking victim Joe is tasked with extracting from a Manhattan brothel, gets little chance to explore such nuances, even if her character, Nina, is far from passive in her own liberation. Nina’s numbed-out affect matches Joe’s, but unlike him, she never lets slip what lies behind that defensive fortress. Though You Were Never Really Here takes place in the sordid world of the underage sex trade, Ramsay doesn’t dwell on the lurid details. When Joe, hammer in hand, finally infiltrates the child sex ring, the sequence that follows is brief and far from explicit. In fact, it’s remarkable mainly for its oblique visual storytelling, as Ramsay tracks Joe’s bloody progress toward his goal by editing together clips of grainy security footage from the cameras stationed throughout the house, sometimes moving back a few seconds in time to capture the same action from different perspectives.
Even if you find You Were Never Really Here’s crime plot vague or overfamiliar, it’s hard not to be swept up by the movie’s all-pervasive mood of tension, fear, and melancholia. The sound design is a blend of urban cacophony—the deafening whine of freeway traffic, the overlapping banal conversations of passers-by—and a propulsive electronic score by Jonny Greenwood. The images—a lavender-and-pink sunset glimpsed through a lattice of bridge guardrails, a close-up of Phoenix’s fingers as he nervously crushes a jelly bean—seem there to evoke a feeling rather than illustrate a point. Ramsay seldom chooses to cut to whatever image a thriller director might be expected to show: the figure emerging from the shadows, the weapon entering the flesh. For a movie this short, YWNRH contains a surprising amount of white space, scenes given over to simply looking and listening rather than advancing the plot.
Given the almost unrelieved darkness of the film’s final scenes, it seems likely some viewers will write off You Were Never Really Here as an exercise in arty nihilism. But Ramsay is not to be so easily dismissed. She’s pulled off the rare feat—rarer still for a female director—of making only the strange, personal films she wants to make, unbothered by constraints of genre or style. (Her three previous features, Ratcatcher, Morvern Callar, and We Need to Talk About Kevin, occupy a space somewhere in between psychological horror and poetic social realism.) Compared with the delicacy of her strongest work—Morvern Callar remains a credible contender for any list of the best movies of the 2000s—You Were Never Really Here may be something of a blunt instrument. But it still managed to knock me out.