It's not often a movie practically forces you to pay attention to its cinematography and editing. You Were Never Really Here does from its first moment, as writer-director Lynne Ramsay uses close-ups and carefully mixed sounds to drop us in the middle of her main character's world. Most of the story we ultimately see takes place in New York, but we meet Joe (Juaquin Phoenix) in a Cincinnati motel room. He's finished up a job that has something to do with a young girl, packs up and disposes of several small items, and we follow closely behind as he walks out the back door into a dingy alleyway. Lest we forget the violence of the world he inhabits, some random guy attempts to mug him, and Joe just head butts him into submission. Then he takes a taxi to the airport.
This doesn't sound that compelling, but You Were Never Really Here is the kind of movie that makes even the most mundane things compelling. Given the rattling noises constantly bombarding us from around Joe's immediate environments, we are meant to get a taste of the total lack of calm inside Joe's head. Back in New York, we learn, as he does, that his next job involves rescuing another young girl from a life of forced sex work. She is the daughter of a state senator.
Very little in this story is predictable, save for the totally expected element of things not quite going as planned. And as we see Joe, cleverly edited through the lenses of security camera footage, making his way through guards with his trusty hammer, his procurement of Nina (a steadfast Ekaterina Samsonov) seems to go as planned far longer than you might expect. This is the kind of movie in which you expect twists to happen, but then the twists only come just when you begin to think they won't.
And as much praise as I want to give this movie -- which is very well done -- I must say I was slightly disappointed with the ending. I won't spoil it, except to say that it offers a twist of its own, but in a downbeat, unexpected way. Just when you think something exciting -- or at least shocking -- is going to happen, it's a slight let down, as of the air were suddenly let out of the tires of this movie's tension, which up until that point is nearly relentless. That said, I also have a healthy respect for a subtext that only gets more depressing the more you think about it.
And You Were Never Really Here offers plenty to think about. Joaquin Phoenix has never been better, here embodying a character who has a surprisingly comforting presence given how violent and tortured he is. Ramsay even provides us with a suitably dark reason for the hammer being his weapon of choice -- again, quite effectively revealed through stark visual and sound editing. More than once I jumped during this movie, not because of deliberate jump-scares but just because of the way sound is used.
One of the oddest twists of this story is that it could have benefited from being more unsettling. Or maybe I've just watched too many disturbing movies. I mean, if you're used to family entertainment, then this probably will keep you up at night. Otherwise, Ramsay uses hyper stylization to compensate for the script being, even if only to a minor degree, its weakest element. To that end, though, she does a bang up job.