After a Best Actor nomination for ‘Walk the Line’ (2005), followed by being shamefully overlooked for his gorgeously tender performance in 2013’s ‘Her’, Joaquin Phoenix couldn’t exactly be put into the category of ‘underrated’, however nor is he considered as a bankable box office draw; which is a real shame. One of the most consistently watchable actors, Phoenix has a history for playing dark and troubled characters – his one in ‘You Were Never Really Here’ being no different – so some may consider him to be “one note”. However, when he plays them this well, it isn’t exactly a bad thing!
The story is as vague in its actualisation as it is in the IMDb description, but essentially it follows ‘Joe’ played by Phoenix, an enforcer of undisclosed authority, who is sent to rescue an underage girl who has been kidnapped and used in the sex trade. Haunted by the visions of his childhood abuse, Joe is deeply troubled, teetering constantly on the brink of psychosis. Essentially a hitman thriller, ‘You Were Never Really Here’ manages to pack an awful lot of hits into its short runtime, as well as an uncomfortably in-depth exploration of the man perpetrating them.
Owing a great deal to the 1976 masterpiece ‘Taxi Driver’, Joaquin Phoenix manages to channel the ghost of Travis Bickle, and to electrifying effect. Near enough the entire runtime is spent with his character, and whilst at times the story feels cold and distant, there is a great deal of pity for this character, despite his brutal nature. Similarly in the aforementioned ‘Taxi Driver’, we spent so much time with DeNiro’s iconic character, and that idea of being so closely aligned with a psychopath, makes for a totally thrilling experience. Whereas ‘Taxi Driver’ had the perfect amount of slow-burning tension, ‘You Were Never Really Here’ doesn’t wait long for the bursts of violence, and the brutality is orchestrated to perfection.
Early on there is a scene which is near silent and switches to the perspective of CCTV cameras within a house. We see Joe moving from room to room, dispatching various heavies, and for all its brutality, it is equally mesmerising to watch. The sound design of this film is absolutely stunning, perfectly utilising silence when needed and punctuating this with sudden and deafening bursts of noise and chaos. The music, from Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood is jarring, jangling, eerie, utterly nerve-shredding and completely amazing, suiting the tone of the film perfectly, and contributing to that constant sense of unease.
Whilst it is easy to connect, although not empathise, with the central character, the story does feel somewhat distant at times. Perhaps this is intentional and somehow represents that emotional disconnect the character feels from the atrocities he is committing, but it does make it a difficult watch in places.
That being said, ‘You Were Never Really Here’ is truly “edge of your seat” stuff, and whilst the comparisons with ‘Taxi Driver’ kind of write themselves, it is still amazing on its own merit. Joaquin Phoenix gives an electric, and possibly career-best performance as the troubled hitman, and only time will tell if this will be the year he receives a much-deserved nomination, or the year he is once again shamefully overlooked. Awards aside however, this is one of the most genuinely thrilling films in a long time, and one which packs a mean punch into a relatively short space. An explosive, and unmissable film.
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Ekaterina Samsonov, Alessandro Nivola, Alex Manette