Joaquin Phoenix is in full beast mode in Lynn Ramsay’s “You were never really here,” a head-scratching drama whose action begins in Cincinnatti, curiously, and moves to New York City. Phoenix is muscular, wears a scowl for much of the film, a glint of evil in the stare.
There’s a little bit of something for everyone in this film: a sexually-deviant governor, murders with a hammer, underage prostitutions, ghosts, PTSD and battle scars.
Lynn Ramsay, the director of the buzz-worthy, epoch-defining “We need to talk about Kevin,” has made a taut psychological drama about Joe (Phoenix), a freelancer who takes care of situations in exchange for wads of cash. He doesn’t have a lot of lines of dialogue. Does the “You were never really here” of the title refer to the discretion usually accorded to these types, they who toil in darkness, investigating other people, living out of cheap motels and killing, if and when necessary? Or does it point to the fact that Joe doesn’t have meaningful encounters with anyone, that he’s an apparition, tormented with flashbacks from his childhood and hallucinations? Ramsay leaves hints here and there, her directorial technique at its very best, but nothing seems for sure.
“You were never really here” delivers several moments of striking visual imagery. In one scene, Joe enters a private townhouse in downtown New York City. It’s an private brothel that specializes in providing underage girls to high-income johns (the governor, running for re-election, among them). As Joe bumrushes the place to spring a young girl out, multiple killings occur. The action is shown to us through the blurry and imperfect viewpoint of the CCTV cameras posted throughout the house. A blues ditty is playing but whether it’s source music or not is up to debate. When the image switches from one camera to another, showing us Joe’s progression through the house, the song skips, at different places. It’s a gimmick but it’s effective at disrupting our expectation of normalcy, fraying our nerves further. There’s something of the supernatural horror flick genre in “Here.” When Joe mimmicks the shower scene from “Psycho” not once but twice, it’s like he’s telling us he’s warning us, bad things will happen to people.
Ramsay’s film is very enjoyable, unpredictable and pleasantly chaotic. Phoenix, all brutal and beastly, has mastered the evil scowl. And yet, while watching this film, I thought, sure, Phoenix looks threatening with all his muscles bulging out, but he can never play the vilain believably. He’s too noble for that, his vulnerability showing. Even when he kills with a hammer.