Extremely violent and incredibly stylish, You Were Never Really Here is another zig-zag for both a writer-director and star who have never adhered to the rules.
Based on a novella by Bored to Death creator Jonathan Ames, this is an almost deadly serious thriller. Joaquin Phoenix plays Joe, a mentally unstable veteran who spends his days taking care of his elderly mother and his nights hunting down sex traffickers and extracting vengeance with a ball-peen hammer. When he's asked to rescue a state senator's runaway daughter, he accepts, but finds himself double-crossed. Left for dead and with more questions than answers, this mission becomes personal.
There are of course a lot of similarities between this and Taxi Driver. But they're two very different beasts. You Were Never Really Here teases a tragic backstory that didn't begin when Joe was stationed overseas, but stretches all the way back to his childhood, when he'd have to hide from his abusive father during one of his violent binges.
But it's not completely grim. There are flashes of lightness. Before accepting his big mission, Joe polishes silver with his mom and they sing along to one of her favorite songs and she nags him about his love lives. Still, these are only brief reprieves. This is an often unrelentingly intense movie. Ramsay chooses to stage the set pieces differently each time. A raid on a brothel is mostly rendered through muffled security footage. A huge scuffle at a shady motel is just an intense, realistic fight to the death. A later invasion into a mansion only cuts to the bodies left in Joe's wake.
You Were Never Really Here works because it refuses to let up, and because Phoenix is so committed, not just to the fight scenes but also to the lost soul purging the world of evildoers through violence. It might be his best performance to date. A movie this bloody (and containing a certain scene in Joe's kitchen) might turn people off. But for those with strong stomachs, this is one of the best movies of the year.