Joaquin Phoenix at his absolute best in new thriller

Joaquin Phoenix plays an angsty assassin in “You Were Never Really Here.” Contributed by Alison Cohen Rosa, Amazon Studios
Joaquin Phoenix plays an angsty assassin in “You Were Never Really Here.” Contributed by Alison Cohen Rosa, Amazon Studios

A journey to the deepest levels of the dark side, “You Were Never Really Here” is an art-house crime thriller that succeeds on every technical and creative level.

From its soul-searing cinematography to its breathtaking use of music through the haunted, watchful, aching lead performance, it bursts at the seams with 90 minutes of genius moments. Writer/director Lynne Ramsay has created the kind of work that brings viewers down into a stunned silence, grappling with unknown, instinctive emotions.

Joaquin Phoenix won the best actor award at last year’s Cannes Film Festival for what is surely the pinnacle work of his career. He delivers a phenomenal, entirely fearless performance as Joe, a battle-hardened veteran turned undercover goon for a shady New York City private detective. He suffers PTSD from his time in the Mideast, but, as we soon learn, long before that he carried mental damage from his childhood.

Joe’s specialty is rescuing young girls from sex slavery rings. His grisly job gives him meaning in a world that disgusts him, shifting his self-destructive impulses into punishing men who deserve the pain more. He is a knight in very bloody armor, or to be accurate, shabby work pants, a mountain-man beard and face-cloaking hoodies.

His usual smash-and-grab rescue involves a ball-peen hammer (easy to pocket, inexpensive, untraceable), a stranger’s fractured skull and a traumatized child carried away on his meaty shoulder. Phoenix gives this lonely, sad contract killer palpable emotion without a wasted gesture or overdone look.

His new client is Albert Votto, a New York senator. According to an anonymous text, his underage daughter Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov) has been kidnapped over the weekend and forced to work in an elegant Manhattan brothel.

When Joe sets out to do his demolition work, he finds himself in a more destructive conflict than he has ever fought, facing ruthless power and trying to humanize his own inner demons. It’s hard not to see this sociopath as a would-be savior. In a tragic, corrupt world, he’s one of the good ones.

The film is filled with paradoxical, ambiguous acts and darkness so close to its characters that it threatens to envelop them. Even the asides — the “Do Not Disturb” tag on a hotel door — carry insidious irony.

There is good plotting, too, more hinted at than underlined, and surreal twists that become plausible once we catch our breath.

It’s not just a great film, it’s essential. This is the sort of cinema whose disturbing power makes it both infamous and unforgettable.


“You Were Never Really Here”

Grade: A

Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Judith Roberts and John Doman. Directed by Lynne Ramsay.

Rated R for strong violence, disturbing and grisly images, coarse language and brief nudity. Check listings at theaters. 1 hour, 29 minutes.

Bottom line: An essential film that's full of genius moments