What happens when a critically-acclaimed director and one of Hollywood's most wild, unpredictable actors take on the plot of a Direct to DVD action movie? Joaquin Phoenix battles a child sex slavery ring with a hammer in this cross between a classy Taken and an even more intense Taxi Driver.
But just as director Lynne Ramsay's now-timely high school shooting picture largely avoided its central act of violence, so You Were Never Really Here eschews the balls-to-the-wall action one might expect in favour of a moody, absurdist character piece. What drives a man to hit the streets, night after night, bludgeoning folk to death with a ball-peen hammer? Joe's actions may be noble, but his motivations aren't necessarily so, and Ramsay delves deep into the traumatised, hurting veteran's psyche. It is not a pleasant place to be.
With his dirty Mel Gibson beard, soft Jack Black voice and a physique like a gigantic slab of beef, his eyes buzzing with pain, Phoenix delivers one of his most compelling performances. The film may be cool (that score!) but Ramsay goes to great lengths to show us that Joe isn't; a strange, profoundly sad, desperately wounded soul who still lives with his mother, barely an ounce of the man is glamourised. The film presents his actions less as heroism than an outlet for his trauma, anger. And sexual hang-ups.
That said, we are talking about a paedophile ring here, so one can't exactly begrudge Joe his head-smashing rampages. On the trail of a kidnapped senator's daughter, Joe finds plenty of nuts to crack, this particular gang proving more resourceful than most. With Joe's mental state rapidly circling the drain, it's make or break time for the vigilante.
Given the subject matter, You Were Never Really Here was always going to be violent and intense. Ramsay, however, is steadfast in her refusal to glamourise. All we see is the aftermath or barely framed glimpses of Joe's wrath. And yet, it's beautiful in its own way, from the way it obscures Joe from the audience during his introduction to his re-enactment of the Shape of Water poster in a lake. The stylish visuals are backed up by a mesmerising score and cool soundtrack, layering warmth onto an otherwise hard-going story and Phoenix's intensity.
He, too, is well backed up, by Ekaterina Samsonov, as the kidnapped girl, and Judith Roberts as his mother. While this sort of character study doesn't leave much room for anyone else, these relationships are strongly written and truthful, and Phoenix shares an affecting chemistry with both. It's one of the most poignant depictions of a mother and son since Ramsay's own We Need to Talk About Kevin.
Such arthouse torment may not be everybody's cup of tea though, and You Were Never Really Here is neither the action film nor super-violent thriller many will have taken it for. Those looking for a hit of cathartic violence would be best off sticking with Liam Neeson after all. This one is as challenging and unpredictable as its star. Unlike the vapid actioner it never really was going to be in the first place (not with that director and star) it'll stick with you long after the credits roll.
YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR & SCREENPLAY: LYNNE RAMSAY / STARRING: JOAQUIN PHOENIX, DANTE PEREIRA-OLSON, LARRY CANADY, VINICIUS DAMASCENO / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW
Expected Rating: 9 out of 10