Don’t be surprised if authoritarian advocates of the nanny state start agitating for restrictions on the unregulated sale of hammers. After all, they easily to conceal and potentially lethal. That is why they are the weapon of choice for “Joe,” a psychologically tormented vigilante, who specializes in rescuing teen runaways from white slavery. Unfortunately, Joe’s death wish might get fulfilled in Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here, which screens during this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
Aside from his aged mother, Joe has little contact with the outside world. Most of his jobs come through intermediaries. He works outside the law, invisibly passing through the low-rent no-tell motels where his prey can be found. Through flashbacks prompted by auto-asphyxiation (with no erotic component), we come to understand the abusive childhood he suffered. Apparently, it was all at the hands of his father, because the empty hulk of a man still dutifully cares for his elderly mother. She is clearly declining physically and mentally, but she still seems to recognize her son.
Joe’s deliberately withdrawn life will be up-ended by his latest assignment. Distraught State Senator Votto retains his services to save his daughter Nina. Initially, it seems like business as usual, but the job mires Joe in a political conspiracy largely beyond his comprehensive and mostly outside the scope of the picture. Regardless, bad guys with guns and badges are coming for him—and the handful of people he knows.
Joaquin Phoenix bulked up De Niro-style for a quietly harrowing performance that just might be a career best. As Joe, he broods and seethes like nobody’s business, but he never resorts to cheap theatrics. It is work that seems to dredge up genuine pain buried deep within. Seriously, Phoenix really is everything reports from Cannes cracked him up to be. Yet, Ramsay sometimes gets in the way with her attempts to put her own narrative-fragmenting stamp on the material. We do not need the constant intrusion of flashbacks to childhood and suicidal fantasies. We totally believe he is profoundly damaged already.
Despite Ramsay’s showiness, young Ekaterina Samsonov matches Phoenix’s taciturn intensity as the equally haunted Nina. They develop an awkward but poignant rapport that makes YWNRH something like the art-house analog of Man on Fire (either one). Judith Roberts is also tragically convincing and compelling as Joe’s ailing mother, while John Doman adds some gritty genre color as McCleary, Joe’s employment agent.
The cast is devastating, but stylistically, this is a case where less would have been more. Nevertheless, Phoenix and company power through Ramsay’s fractured prism. Ultimately recommended as a flawed but visceral character study of a flawed but viscerally-driven man, You Were Never Really Here screens again tonight (1/27) in Park City, as part of the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.