Joaquin Phoenix assumes a hooded, bearlike presence in “You Were Never Really Here,” a disquieting urban thriller directed by Lynne Ramsay. As Joe, a taciturn hit man whose specialty is rescuing young women who have been abducted and forced into sex trafficking, Phoenix is a lurking, skulking bundle of anxieties and retributive obsession, a dangerous mash-up of Holden Caulfield’s beneficent alter ego in “The Catcher in the Rye” and “Taxi Driver’s” haunted Travis Bickle.
(The movie is distributed by Amazon Studios. Amazon chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
In fact, “You Were Never Really Here,” adapted from a 2013 novel by Jonathan Ames, owes more than a passing debt to “Taxi Driver,” with which it shares an unsettling depiction of unresolved trauma, urban claustrophobia and male redemption predicated on female suffering. Ramsay makes bold, counterintuitive choices as a director, offering quiet interludes and quick, shardlike flashbacks by way of characterization.
That approach dispenses with the usual windy expository passages that bog down so many movies, trusting the audience to piece together the broken fragments of Joe’s past life, which include parental abuse, hitches in Afghanistan and the FBI, and his recent career as an assassin-with-a-higher-purpose. The result is a drama that conveys an exceptionally vivid sense of impending tension and dread.
Like “A Quiet Place,” John Krasinski’s recent sleeper hit, “You Were Never Really Here” breaks cinematic storytelling down to its fundamentals: It’s a study in sound, image and performance in which brutal violence is displayed obliquely (in jumpy, grainy surveillance footage in one scene; reflected in a shattered mirror in another) and in which Jonny Greenwood’s purposefully oppressive musical score often fights with Phoenix’s unintelligible dialogue, as well as the assaultive sound effects of modern life. Ramsay provides generous dashes of past references for cinephiles: In addition to obvious nods to Scorsese and Hitchcock, it’s possible to detect glancing homages to Sergei Eisenstein and John Frankenheimer.
Playing both protagonist and muse, Phoenix offers his bulked-out body as yet another canvas for clues to Joe’s clearly anguished past. The austerely pulled-back hair, the tattoos and prodigious scars, the private rites and rituals and bouts of explosive violence with a ball-peen hammer (made in the U.S.A.) all suggest a primal unhealed wound and — when Joe is given the assignment to save Nina, the young daughter of a powerful New York politician — ultimate salvation.
As beautiful and compelling as Ramsay’s filmmaking and Phoenix’s central performance are, the degree to which viewers will buy “You Were Never Really Here” depends on the degree to which they accept yet another display of febrile vigilante brutality motivated by sexual violence perpetrated against young girls. One person’s trope, after all, is another’s shopworn cliché. In many ways, “You Were Never Really Here” is just a tarted-up version of “Taken,” however artfully Ramsay has disguised and deconstructed its pulpy contours.
There’s a meaningful moment in the film when Joe pads through a mansion to find Nina, played by Ekaterina Samsonsov, and he passes the painting of a young woman looking startled in her bed, one breast exposed. Is Ramsay putting “You Were Never Really Here” on that same classic iconographic continuum? Critiquing an aesthetic tradition rooted in a disproportionately powerful male gaze? Or calling out the hypocrisy of spectators who value the exploitation of female sexuality in some contexts and abhor it in others?
The correct answers would be yes, yes and yes, I suspect. There’s no denying Ramsay’s artistry in “You Were Never Really Here,” which, like her 2011 film “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” qualifies as a brilliant exercise in formalism and deeply psychological portraiture. Still, there’s also no escaping the fact that she has marshaled her gifts in service to a played-out story drenched in pseudo-angsty-macho wish-fulfillment fantasies.
“You Were Never Really Here” is a good film, maybe even a great one. But I can’t honestly say that I liked it.
★★ (out of ★★★★)
You Were Never Really Here
When • Opens Friday, April 20.
Where • Broadway Centre Theatre.
Rating • R for strong violence, disturbing and grisly images, coarse language and brief nudity.
Running time • 89 minutes.