Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) does wetwork for a New York private investigator. He toils in back alleys at night or in tight narrow corridors of the seediest establishments. Post titles Joe is cleaning his weapon of choice a hammer in a back alley. He encounters and deals with a combatant on his way into a Cincinnati cab headed to the airport. Our protagonist lands in New York heading arriving back at his Brooklyn home where he lives with his aging mother. Inner demons surface through flashbacks to a violent childhood mixed with present-day micro suicide attempts. His next assignment that spans the rest of the film is to rescue Nina Votto (Ekaterina Samsonov) the kidnapped daughter of a State Senator Alberta Votto (Alex Manette) taken to work underage in a brothel. The security, employees, and patrons are no match for Joe as he plucks Nina from the three-story walk-up bringing her to the agreed meeting location then things get extremely complicated.
Director Lynne Ramsey returns from a 6 year hiatus since 2011's powerful We Need To Talk About Kevin to pilot this film. The material is again both heavy and violent as Ramsey tells the story of a brawny loaner with a special forces background who is a blunt instrument of justice for the vulnerable and marginalized. The lean direct narrative features several scenes sparsely dotted with dialogue allowing the events to speak for themselves.
Joaquin Phoenix is in just about every frame of the film. He is more likely to emit a grunt than an eloquent passage of dialogue. His mind replays traumatic memories from his childhood of an abusive father plus his time as a U.S. Solider. He's a brute sporting an unkempt beard that is more salt than pepper as he brutally dispenses justice in hand to hand combat with his adversaries. Ekaterina Samsonov is almost cationic as freed captive Nina Votto. She counts constantly in a haunting manner seemingly a defense mechanism that she likely employed when pinned under a patron at the brothel. Judith Roberts is memorable in a supporting role as Joe's mother. She wants her space and independence as she constantly fights against her failing body and mind.
You Were Never Really Here is the story of one man who's internal battles scream while he outwardly presents as stoic and brooding. The beats, sex trafficking and pedophilia are harsh but still overshadowed by the entrenched system protecting the criminal syndicate. The acting is supubly understated backed by a foreboding Joe Greenwood soundtrack. It's a tough but rewarding watch that I can definitely recommend.
*** 1/2 Out of 4.
You Were Never Really Here | Lynne Ramsay | U.K. / France | 2018 | 89 Minutes.
Tags: Government Agent, Ball Peen Hammer, Child Prostitution, State Senator, War Veteran, PTSD, Conspiracy, 50,000.