You Were Never Really Here, review – Joaquin Phoenix nails hammer hitman act

A beefed-up Joaquin Phoenix dominates Lynne Ramsay’s bleak and uneven new film with the most muscular role of his career.

You Were Never Really Here, the new film from Scottish director Lynne Ramsay, stars Joaquin Phoenix. It’s a terrific performance, a starkly physical turn from an actor most associated with states of tortured introspection (although there’s much of that in the film too).

Joe, the character he plays, is beefed up impressively; scars ripple his meaty upper shoulder, and he sports a wiry-bush beard and grey straggly locks pulled into a greasy ponytail. I’m not sure what profession Joe would check in a drop-down menu on an online application for a credit card (note: he’s a cash-only kind of guy). But his work involves a lot of beating people up. He’s hired muscle expected to apply violent force.

The bulk of the film involves a job he signs on for with an ambitious senator, whose young daughter Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov) has been kidnapped for repeated abuse by a Manhattan paedophile ring. The senator wants Joe to retrieve Nina and to hurt the men who captured and continue to torment her. He mentions that he’s heard Joe can be “brutal”. Joe, dead eyes staring straight ahead, his voice a murmur, says: “I can be”.

Indeed he can. Utilising the preferred instrument of his trade, a hammer bought in a downtown DIY store (on which the phrase Made in the USA has been prominently stamped, alerting us to the possible state-of-the-nation vibes to the storm of violence that Joe carries with him), he proceeds to gain access to this gruesome child prostitution den and demolish sundry clients and security personnel with strategic and gruesome blows to the head.

Joe is a kind of avenging angel, clutching a bloodied hammer and pumped up to the eyes on painkillers, patrolling the neon-lit streets of New York

There is more brutality to come, when Joe realises he’s been set up by sinister forces connected to the senator, and Nina is recaptured by a powerful figure whose identity Joe seeks to uncover. This mission acquires a personal edge when those closest to Joe are killed by the kidnappers, and Joe determines to rescue Nina, a kind of avenging angel, clutching a bloodied hammer and pumped up to the eyes on painkillers, patrolling the neon-lit streets of New York.

There is a lot of violence in You Were Never Really Here. Much of it is implied or filmed with unnerving detachment: editing the film to provoke a sense of queasy delirium, Ramsay dwells on the aftermath of the act – the bloody wound, the lifeless body. At such moments it’s as if the movie is constructed from the fragments left by a traumatic act.

The film is in some ways a character study of Joe, but it is a shattered, unstable, fractious kind of portrait. Joe says little, but we intuit troubled depths beneath his laconic exterior. Ramsay hints at the cause – flashbacks evoke a disturbing episode from Joe’s military background and we’re also returned, in bursts of nightmarish intensity, to primal scenes from his troubled childhood.

You Were Never Really Here is brilliantly made, daringly structured and invested with jumpy, lurid lyricism. But this stylistic triumph fails to resonate emotionally. A little like Nicolas Winding Refn’s arthouse take on US pulp, it strains for seriousness but isn’t really saying much – except that the violence on display is a bad thing and Joe, in damaging others, is also damaging himself. Compared to, say, Taxi Driver, which the film unwisely alludes to, this is thin stuff. But it shows Ramsay has talent to burn: it’s been seven years since her last film, We Need to Talk About Kevin. Let’s hope the wait for the next one isn’t so long.

You Were Never Really Here is out March 9.