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You Were Never Really Here Is a Smart Thriller That Retreads Familiar Territory

When discussing their new crime-horror thriller You Were Never Really Here, director Lynne Ramsey and lead actor Joaquin Phoenix gravitate toward the word “familiar.” The Scottish director’s fourth feature film is a contemporary noir about an uncompromising NYC hitman named Joe (Phoenix), who is on a mission to rescue a politician’s preteen daughter from prostitution. “Familiar” is the way Ramsey and Phoenix describe the dramatic and stylistic tendencies they were trying to avoid while making a movie that tells that kind of story. To Rolling Stone, Phoenix described the improvisational process behind the film, which is an adaptation of a Jonathan Ames novel: “It was a constant willingness to fail. We would say, ‘Well, we know that we can’t do that–we can’t do these things that we’ve seen before that feel familiar to us.’” When discussing the dramatic role of Jonny Greenwood’s invasive electroacoustic score, Ramsay told Indiewire: “The stuff was pretty incredible from the get go [because] it was about this character–it was a world you were familiar with and then became something totally different.” Their discourse seems to suggest that the primarily implicit challenge of You Were Never Here was taking an archetypal story about a brutal, tortured antihero’s downward spiral and molding it into something novel or, at least, disorienting.

In many ways, they succeeded. You Were Never Really Here is an engrossing 90 minutes. It’s beautifully and almost always cleverly shot. Cinematographer Thomas Townsend masterfully draws attention to his oblique camerawork without letting it overwhelm the clarity and pacing of the narrative. But it’s Phoenix’s portrayal of Joe, which vacillates between hyper-intensity and idiosyncratic humor, that truly distinguishes Ramsay’s film. His dramatic climaxes, dominated by panic attacks, silent weeping, and self-asphyxiation, feel singular even in the context of a filmography full of self-sacrificing roles (most notably, The Master). Ramsay highlights Phoenix’s newly beefy, He-Man-style body, its asymmetries and rolling knots of scars functioning like a roadmap to his characters’ tortured past life. They’re reminders of atrocities from his childhood, military career, and criminal career since his return, and Ramsay cuts in snapshot flashbacks to enhance our understanding of his trauma.

You Were Never Really Here is Ramsay’s most high-profile project to date, and it expands on the themes on which she has focused in her previous work. Directly, it’s an escalation of the director’s 2011 breakthrough film We Need to Talk about Kevin, another investigation of trauma and brutal violence. That movie, which revolved around the family life of a school shooter, felt like a more self-consciously provocative outgrowth of her 2002 masterpiece Morvern Callar, a study of a young Welsh woman’s grief and detachment after her husband’s suicide. The bloody action sequences in You Were Never Really Here draws the film closer to traditional genre fare than any of Ramsay’s previous character studies. The director told Rolling Stone that she hoped to “question violence, where it comes from …and where it’s going” in the film. Still, it’s hard to pinpoint what Joe’s murderous, pill-fueled rampage through New York City says about violence–sexual abuse included–that hasn’t been said before by any number of films, TV shows, books, and so on.

Despite the inspired aesthetic and dramatic detailing, the themes and general mise en scenes in You Were Never Really Here really are familiar. Like, say, Wim Wenders’s postmodern noir The American Friend or Rainer Maria Fassbinder’s Douglas-Sirk-inspired melodrama Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, Ramsay’s film feels like a foreign filmmaker’s lightly subversive tribute to a strand of American filmmaking–even just one film in particular. There are abundant, glaring parallels in YWNRH to Martin Scorcese’s 1976 classic Taxi Driver, arguably the most influential film about a nihilistic killer in the midst of a psychological episode of all time. Like Robert DeNiro’s insomniac zealot Travis Bickle, Phoenix’s Joe is a troubled veteran with a shadowy past living in New York City who becomes obsessed with rescuing a 12-year-old sex worker.

As in Taxi Driver, there’s a bloodbath in a brownstone brothel, and Joe, like Travis, has dealings with a political campaign. Ramsay’s opening credits even roll over semi-hallucinatory images of a cab ride, in a seemingly direct homage to Scorcese’s film. Both protagonists are spectral presences trolling the city’s streets with a weapon of choice–in Joe’s case, a hammer bought from a hardware store (silly but effective). If Travis’s mission is a scorched-earth cleanup job based on a warped sense of moral justice, Joe is just a “hired gun,” but eventually, semi-Freudian impulses surge to the forefront (Psycho is referenced directly in the film, somewhat distractingly) and his quest becomes personal. The cruelly ironic choices Phoenix makes in his performance recalls DeNiro’s vicious, red-eyed capriciousness.

Unlike DeNiro though, Phoenix’s guise in You Are Never Really Here is unlikely to inspire fashion trends (manbuns are already popular) or dorm room posters. On the streets of New York, Joe is less a cutting-edge vigilante antihero than another creepy guy on a subway platform–a part of the fabric of New York City, another of hundreds of thousands of walking mysteries. Ramsay, compellingly, draws the film further into the subjectivity of her protagonist’s PTSD-afflicted psychosis, which seems to be affected by the city’s oppressive energy as much as his troubled past. The visual and aural phenomena that trigger him fuse together and fracture the flow of the film, turning full scenes into expressionistic nightmares. Joe stares distractedly into the face of the tourist he’s asked to snap a picture of, or his shadowy hipster neighbor. A cabbie’s voice singing idly becomes an otherworldly dirge in his mind. The dripping and hissing of a coffee pot becomes a searing cacophony, and the image of a jelly bean being crushed feels almost as gory as an image of a face or hand beaten to a pulp. Joe is most different than Travis Bickle in that we understand Phoenix’s character, like the girl he is being paid to search for, to be a victim of lifelong trauma, and his memories of abuse and death are viscerally communicated in every element of Ramsay’s filmmaking.

You Were Never Really Here features Ramsay’s most traditional narrative to date, which both broadens its appeal and narrows its emotional resonance. Unlike Morvern Callar, where the the viewer is drawn comprehensively into her more sympathetic protagonist’s cycles of mourning, Joe closes in and presses down on the source of his pain rather than running away from it. While Phoenix’s upsurges of emotional transparency and pathos in the film are inspired, the film’s revenge story is commonplace. Most of the unsolved mysteries embedded into the plot (and its stock-ambiguous conclusion) are too slight to make the film feel as enigmatic as it seems to want to be.

Ultimately, You Were Never Really There is an impeccably realized thriller with some appealing art-film-like trimmings. It’s a formal tour de force whose success is further bolstered by Phoenix’s impressive live-wire performance. The combination makes for a electrifying theatrical experience. But the fact that it enters into a decades-long corpus of similarly warped noirs makes it less likely to lend itself to re-contemplation over time than many of the films to which it pays homage, or even some of Ramsay’s previous work. It ends up feeling more like the sum of its well-constructed parts than a haunting revelation.