Joaquin Phoenix gives a morosely post-modern interpretation of the violent vigilante archetype in “You Were Never Really Here” that’s as unexpected as his portrayal of a very offbeat private detective in 2014’s “Inherent Vice.” In films ranging from “Gladiator” to the Johnny Cash biopic “Walk the Line” to the SF dramedy “Her,” Phoenix has been able to make a wide variety of characters convincing, and this is one of his most interesting roles yet.
In this grim noir thriller, Phoenix plays the almost autistically disconnected loner Joe as a sadder and more tragically human version of Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle from 1976’s “Taxi Driver.” Where Travis saved a single underage hooker for personal reasons, Joe earns his illegal freelance living by rescuing girls abducted for the sex trade. He’s also an ex-military, suicidally self-loathing, childhood-trauma survivor who hasn’t had a girlfriend in 20 years and lives with his mentally deteriorating mother (Judith Roberts).
What keeps those elements from turning Joe into some kind of ironic metrosexual parody of the traditional tough guy is Phoenix’s ability to make him depressingly believable, haunted by a previous rescue gone wrong, the horrors of war, and his abusive father’s bloody brutality.
Just back from an away job in Cincinnati, Joe is tapped to retrieve a state senator’s 13-year-old daughter (an ethereally placid Ekaterina Samsonov) from a New York brothel where she has been put to work. Unlike Travis Bickle’s graphically gore-splattered bullets-and-blade slaughter spree in “Taxi Driver,” Joe’s mission is shown as a stylishly disjointed montage of mostly black-and-white security camera footage, accompanied by jump-edited audio segments of the oldie “Angel Baby.” Bad guys are swiftly and efficiently dispatched by Joe’s ball peen hammer, with no need for either him or us to linger over the results.
Instead of being the cathartic climax of the film, a la “Taxi Driver,” freeing the girl sets in motion a series of shockingly lethal complications that threaten to cost Joe everyone he knows, everything he has, and what’s left of his mind. His determination to keep going despite yearning to end his misery by taking himself permanently out of the picture makes him seem more regretfully resigned than relentless about his quest for vengeance.
While director and screenplay writer Lynne Ramsay (“Ratcatcher”) is good at keeping this unexpectedly moving character study more compelling than most standard hero-with-a-gun flicks, some of her deviations from the original Jonathan Ames book on which it is based are unfortunate. Ames is primarily known for writing humorous fiction and non-fiction, as well as creating the cable TV comedies “Bored to Death” and “Blunt Talk.” Despite this, there is absolutely nothing funny or tongue-in-cheek about his “You Were Never Really Here” novel, which is about as hardcore as hardboiled thrillers get.
That’s why it’s a shame that Ramsay added an absurdly out-of-character scene in which Joe lies on a kitchen floor at one point to sing a song with someone he has just shot, and even holds the dying man’s hand as he expires.
Far worse, Ramsay has replaced Ames’ chillingly depraved and twisty original ending with one that not only is less interesting, but makes Joe’s very presence at the finale almost irrelevant.
Ramsay may have thought her new ending was acceptable because of her interpretation of Joe as a slovenly victim for whom a more triumphant hero moment would have seemed unlikely. Having Phoenix play the role with a hugely bushy Mel Gibson beard and greasy hair that’s long enough to tie back was a strange choice in itself. The book’s Joe keeps his hair “the length of a Marine on leave,” and has a jaw that was “too big and long, like the spade of a shovel.” (Phoenix’s next acting job after he finished playing Joe was as Jesus in “Mary Magdalene,” so maybe he wanted to show up camera-ready for that role.)
Surprisingly, the movie still is a must-see despite those flaws. Playing Joe as a miserable mental case who seems to be reluctantly enduring his quest more than furiously seeking justice makes the character a real change from the usual protagonists in what now could be referred to as the “Taken” genre. Phoenix received the Best Actor award for his performance at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, where Ramsay received the Best Screenplay prize.
The movie’s excellent, beat-heavy and sometimes dissonant score is by Radiohead member Jonny Greenwood, whose past work has included music for the Paul Thomas Anderson movies “There Will Be Blood” and “Phantom Thread.” He previously worked with Ramsay on her 2011 film “We Need To Talk About Kevin.”
Ramsay’s many artfully composed single images include a Bible tossed in a metal trash can, a dry-cleaner bag adhering to a gasping face, a bullet-cracked ceiling mirror in a hotel room, and knife-drops on a wooden floor next to a bare foot. But there also are some elegantly beautiful shots, such as rain being squeezed from the tips of rescued Nina’s blond hair, or a dream-like underwater scene that manages to evoke both the romanticism of “The Shape of Water” and the horrific limbo of 2013’s “Under the Skin.”
The book is undeniably better, but the movie gets enough of it right before going somewhat wrong, and Phoenix is unforgettable.