Bloody violent and bloody boring. You Were Never Really Here occasionally has gripping moments but quickly releases its grip. It simultaneously presents us with unrelenting dark characters while punting on any meaningful character development.
With dark lighting and violence frequently shown from a distance, the film is obviously, obsequiously, trying to be an artsy-action film. But it only manages to pull off moments of art and moments of action and rarely do they overlap.
Joaquin Phoenix stars by doing very Joaquin Phoenix-is things. He’s sporting a ragged beard, unkempt hair, and an overall look that would have parents with small children crossing the street to avoid him. He also mumbles most of his dialogue, but that’s fine since there’s barely any dialogue to be heard.
He plays Joe, mentally scarred in childhood, physically scarred in a war, and carrying enough PTSD to keep a team of psychologists employed for years. These days, Joe is a contract killer. At first we don’t know if he’s working for the mob or a foreign government. But turns out he’s an avenging angel-for-higher.
A state senator hires him find his runaway daughter, Nina, who’s been kidnapped by a child sex ring. He tells Joe to hurt them. That’s it. There is barely any transactional emotion in the moment. Clearly director Lynne Ramsay wanted to keep her artsy action free of clichés, but in the process she keeps it free of any real action elements.
Ramsay clearly wants to keep you focused on the screen. The dearth of dialogue is the key tool. Joe lives in his childhood home with his mother (Judith Roberts). When we meet her we are shown with her in the foreground and a picture of her younger self in the background. An interesting contrast, but it doesn’t go anywhere.
She and Joe have enough banter to let us know they have a strong (by their standards) relationship. But the main topic of conversation is Joe’s inability to meet a nice girl and settle down. I think we could have figured out that he’s gonna be single for life.
The rest of the film is dedicated to his violent but relatively easy extraction of Nina, and the relentless retribution against him by the organizers of the child sex ring.
Running on Empty
But because we’ve never been able to make any emotional connection to anyone or any real plot point, we’re never looking beyond any moment beyond what’s on the screen at any particular moment.
Joe is empty. Nina is empty. The viewer is empty. Maybe that’s the point. Phoenix may get some fringe awards buzz, but if he builds a new trophy shelf, it will be (say it with me) empty.
The Critic’s Cocktail Recommendation
Vodka, served from a mini-bottle served on a plane. There’s something inside that will satisfy you for a moment, but it will soon be.. empty.