Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) is a reserved enforcer who lives alone with his mother and suffers post-traumatic stress disorder, both from his experiences in war, his time in the FBI, and a violent and abusive father. When asked to recover the daughter (Ekaterina Samsonov) of a politician, he uncovers a child prostitution ring and sets himself on a path of bloody vengeance.
It's hard to explain in words just how utterly brutal, violent and disturbing You Were Never Really Here is. For those that are familiar with Lynne Ramsay's previous work - namely, We Need To Talk About Kevin - there's some indication going in that it's going to be something that you won't walk away from unscathed. Although the comparisons are there between You Were Never Really Here and, say, Taxi Driver, it really has no comparison with any other film you're likely to see and the effects of it will stay with you for days.
The film rests across Phoenix's shoulders, who is able to display so much vulnerability and menace in a mere nudge or gesture that it's hard not to see how he won't pick up some kind of award for it. Likewise, Lynne Ramsay's ability to set the tone of absolute dread and horror - even in the most unlikely of circumstances - is incredible. There are so many scenes and moments throughout the film that you'll have to remind yourself to unclench, such is the unbearable ferocity with which it works. It works within the confines of neo-noir; gumshoe detective, missing girl, conspiracies that go all the way to the top, but the execution is more closer to horror than anything else.
That, in a way, is what makes this film so unbelievably hard to take at times - the complete and utter inhumanity of the characters. Even Joe, who we're supposed to empathise with, is this walled-off maniac who beats people to death with a ballpeen hammer and has almost no dialogue throughout the film.All we see is Phoenix skulking around corners with a baseball hat below wild eyes, hands covered in blood.
It's easily one of the best performances of his career, but again, it's hard to connect with him or any of the characters on screen because they're all so damaged and despicable in different ways. If there's any complaint to be made about the film, it's that it's a hard film to connect with because there's so much damage and viciousness across the screen that you're almost hoping it's all over.
With that, it's hard to knowingly recommend You Were Never Really Here - as it's not the kind of film that can be readily described as enjoyable or entertaining. Quite frankly, it isn't either of these things by any stretch of the imagination - but it is a compelling, unforgettable experience and it's the kind of film that will linger for days after. If you can get over this, and you can accept a somewhat too neatly folded story, You Were Never Really Here is worth the trip.