“You Were Never Really Here” delivers emotional moments like hammers to the face

Daniel Young

“You Were Never Really Here” is an hour and a half of Joaquin Phoenix beating up strangers with a hammer, but it has more heart than most of the movies released so far this year.

Written and directed by Lynn Ramsey (“We Need to Talk About Kevin”), “You Were Never Really Here” follows Joe, a hammer-wielding vigilante-for-hire on a quest to rescue a child from sex slavery. Between hitmen, the burden of taking care of his elderly mother and his own trauma, Joe is pushed to his breaking point. As he beats his way through hired muscle and inches closer to finding the girl, he’s forced to confront his worst fears.

Beyond that, synopsizing “You Were Never Really Here” doesn’t do the film justice. Ramsey is a director in a league of her own, and her voice is integral to the identity of the film in a way that few directors’ are. In the hands of anyone else, this story could easily have been passable or overblown, the kind of fare that you skip when you find it on Netflix because you’ve already seen “Taken.” Under Ramsey, though, it’s a rare, pulse-pounding poem of a movie — everything is intentional, and from the broadest plot point down to the tiniest moments, she crafts the film with an obsessive attention to detail.

At times, “You Were Never Really Here” almost seems to be an homage or response to “Taxi Driver,” as the plot and themes of Scorsese’s film seem to linger around the picture from beginning to end. However, Ramsey flips the script in such a way as to make the “tortured man saves young girl from sex slavery” story feel completely new and entirely more impactful than it’s ever been before. Joe isn’t Travis Bickle, he’s a grizzly-sized veteran of the war in the Middle East, and unlike Bickle, whose “You talkin’ to me” monologue has become a cultural touchstone, Joe’s “episodes” aren’t quotable or iconic so much as they are dazzlingly painful. Above all else, Ramsey loves Joe, and her dedication to understanding him sets her work apart from anything similar to it.

Phoenix’s turn as Joe, the latest in a career that’s already filled to the brim with amazing physical performances, stands out as yet another classic. He broods around the movie, looming physically over everything and everyone he comes into contact with while still remaining the most vulnerable character on screen at all times. Carefully, Phoenix delivers Joe’s fundamental injuries without missing a beat, crashing around a scene at one moment like a force of nature and breaking down into tears the next.

It also can’t be understated how beautiful this movie is. Cinematographer Tom Townend, who shot “We Need to Talk About Kevin” for Ramsey in 2011, is back again with a magnificent sense for how her stories ought to be told visually.

Between Phoenix’s outstanding performance and Ramsey’s skill for visualizing raw emotions, “You Were Never Really Here” stands as another great entry in two impressive careers. Whereas most filmmakers would seem content just to make movies with either a compelling action flick or moving drama, Ramsey delivers on both fronts, and as a result, “You Were Never Really There” might be a new classic.

Running Time: 90 minutes

Rating: R

Rating: 5 stars