Joaquin Phoenix gives a haunting and violent portrayal of a traumatized war vet who hires himself out as a rescuer of runaway and kidnapped girls. Amazon Studios

FILM REVIEW: Violent vigilanteism helps cast disquieting spell

Robert Moyes offers his take on Joaquin Phoenix and You Were Never Here

Robert Moyes

Monday Magazine contributor

Unabashedly non-commercial director Lynne Ramsay (We Need to Talk About Kevin) doubles down with her newest film, You Were Never Really Here.

Imagine an elliptical, feminist, art-house update of Taxi Driver and you’ve got a pretty good idea what she’s doing here as she enters almost exclusively male territory to re-invent the vigilante genre.

A bearded and mumbly Joaquin Phoenix stars as Joe, whose back story – an abusive childhood and some dreadful experiences as a soldier – you are obliged to piece together on the fly as Ramsay doles out fragmented flashbacks. Joe seems to suffer from PTSD but he’s still keen to hire himself out as a brutal, ball peen hammer-wielding rescuer of girls who are either runaways or kidnap victims. Adding to the psychological complexity, Joe is an unconventional caregiver to his semi-demented mother.

A senator’s 14-year-old daughter has ended up a prisoner in a house of horrors where rich men pay to have sex with under-age girls. “Hurt them a lot,” demands the senator when he meets covertly with Joe to hire him. Joe is happy to oblige, and his visit to the rape-house yields brutal results. But the sequence never becomes viscerally exciting action porn because the punishment – meted out to customers and guards alike – is distanced by being shown via static surveillance-camera footage that is part of the house’s security system.

Joe’s rescue of the traumatized girl is short-lived, however, as murderous violence descends upon him from an unexpected direction. With the girl once again missing, the plot suddenly involves a conspiracy whose puzzling dimensions aren’t made clear until almost the end of the film.

Never is often opaque and makes few concessions to the audience: the violence isn’t cathartic, enigmatic Joe remains shrouded in emotional darkness, and even when the plot comes to a climax there is still much left unresolved. In other words, this won’t be selling a lot of popcorn at the cineplex.

That said, the creatively directed Never should be of interest to those film fans who usually have no appetite for the bone-crunching mayhem that Hollywood’s more manly directors like to ladle out. And the gloomy and harsh soundtrack by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood adds an effectively disturbing element. Although Never never tries to gratuitously shock the audience, it does cast a deeply disquieting spell.

Rating: ***1/2

Stars Joaquin Phoenix

Directed by Lynne Ramsay

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