Had You Were Never Really Here had its release shifted around to be more in the forefront of voters’ minds come award season, you’d have to imagine Joaquin Phoenix’s performance would be ranking as one of the top contenders. Furthermore, the film itself would be too at it proves to be a prime example of deconstructing a tested genre and presenting it as a visceral experience as opposed to a mere cinematic venture.
Though there’s an obvious art-house mentality adhered to in the film’s non-linear storytelling, Lynne Ramsay’s psychological thriller is void of any expected pretension. A neo-noir feature injected with healthy testosterone and a general sense of relentlessness, You Were Never Really Here sounds like the type of film on paper that would excite the Liam Neesons and the Denzel Washingtons of the industry due to its simplistic “gun for hire seeks to save a young girl from a pedophile ring” outline. How out of their depth they would ultimately be though.
A scarred veteran who now makes his living as a brutal contract killer, Phoenix’s Joe is a deeply disturbed man who, from the very first frame, is in the midst of a psychological breakdown; in between his jobs he routinely attempts to commit suicide, as well as performing acts of self-masochism which in one of the film’s more unpleasant moments results in him ripping out his own teeth. As brutal as Joe’s manner is (he prefers to attack his marks with hammers as opposed to using a gun) we sense an air of compassion about him, a personality trait made obvious by his evident concern for the wellbeing of young Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), the pre-teen daughter of a New York senator who has been abducted.
Several of the story’s beats feel familiar, and you can imagine had this plot outline been given to a more mainstream director we would have a run-of-the-mill vigilante actioner on our hands – not that there’s anything wrong with that. But under Ramsay (who also helmed the strikingly effective We Need To Talk About Kevin) You Were Never Really Here feels utterly original, like one of those film ventures that takes you by complete surprise as it gut punches you with both stirring emotion and graphic intensity.