Director: Lynne Ramsay | 90 minutes | drama | Actors: Joaquin Phoenix, Ekaterina Samsonov, Alessandro Nivola, Alex Manette, John Doman, Judith Roberts, Jason Babinsky, Vinicius Damasceno, Kate Easton, Jonathan Wilde, Dante Pereira-Olson, Leigh Dunham
How long does it take until a raw, bottom-shot portrait of a kind of biblical savage who is struggling concentratedly through a succession of stylistic devices, becomes irritating? Long, really long, because Joaquin Phoenix is intriguingly good as the hit man Joe who lives with mom (Judith Roberts). So good that we turn a blind eye to a picture of a New York grocery store with “33p” on the door as a price indication.
A moderately cast character like that of abuse victim Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov) is alternated with the movingly good Roberts. Lynne Ramsay is a director with taste. In ‘You Were Never Really Here’ she quotes passionately from the rich film history, from Scorceses ‘Taxi Driver’ (street life), via Oldman’s ‘Nil by Mouth’ (violent picture) and Gibson’s ‘The Passion of the Christ’ (martyrdom) to works by Iñárritu (guitar soundtrack). So fiery that the film threatens to become a long video clip of style discoveries.
Is Ramsay actually telling a story or does she want to manically show what she has to offer, saved by a masterful Phoenix who achieves an equally high level in every scene? Everything actually: in three quarters of the film – Joe has already rolled up a child pornography network with a hobby hammer, the film threatens to get bogged down in a context-free symphony of violence. And Phoenix seems to capitulate definitively in the staccato of actions he gets from Ramsay when his traumatized character freaks out.
But then Scottish Ramsay (“Lets Talk About Kevin”) turns over the bloody pancake and bakes solid movie food after all. Then the film solidifies to a logical climax, with a message of reversed values. The murderer is the moral knight, and innocent victims can easily become murderers, it says. Stylistically it could have been even more compact, but with a double (and therefore ambiguous) final scene, Ramsay puts a big icing on the cake, er… pancake.