It appears that lately I am on a very different wavelength than most of the movie critics. For some reason, none of their favorites are working for me. You Were Never Really Here was written/directed by Lynne Ramsay and had made a big splash last year over at Cannes. It was nominated for the Palme d’Or award, Joaquin Phoenix has won the award for best actor and Lynne herself has won the award for best screenplay, although it has to be mention that the win was a tie with Yorgos Lanthimos for The Killing Of A Sacred Deer. In hindsight, this explains a lot, since both movies make about equal amount of sense to me, which is little to none. Also, spoilers ahead, so beware.
Right from the first scene, we are thrown into the world of Joe (played by Phoenix), which is dark and violent. He lives a recluse life and occasionally accepts assignments that requires him to hurt people. The only people close to him is his mother, who is no longer in control of her full faculties. Joe is also damaged goods, both from childhood trauma and experiences lived on the battlefield as a soldier. His latest assignment is the recovery of the kidnapped daughter of a US senator and the punishment of the men that took her. And, as usual, that is where all things go wrong.
First, let us start with the good parts. The movie is shot in a beautiful way, each frame is crisp, vibrant and perfectly constructed for maximum effect. We see everything in the best way possible, there are no shaky cams. The imagery is most effective, especially when it comes to the violence. You will believe that those people got hurt. Second, Joaquin Phoenix is really putting his back into this role. He does not have much dialog, but the dude is acting like there is no tomorrow. This movie is a perfect vehicle for him to display his talents as an actor. The Cannes award he got for this was well deserved.
That being said, I really fail to see the point of this movie. The accent is so much on the performance brought by Phoenix that the story itself takes a step into the background, trying to hide the fact of how hollow it just is. There is an antagonist, but we never get to meet him. We know what he does and from that we can tell that he is a really bad person, but he is never there. His motivation, that basically sets up the premise of the movie, just feels unbelievable. Also, considering the agency provided by the story to the antagonist, the decisions he makes are rather poor. There are some other characters as well in the movie, but they receive far too little screen time to be memorable. I am guessing that their absence was supposed to highlight Joes isolation and precarious situation, but if that was really the case, it was a feeble attempt. Any subtleties or nuances that the director tries to convey are just overshadowed by the constant negative place in which Joe is.
The entire movie is basically a schizophrenic mix of 8MM, by Joel Schumacher, and Leon, the Professional, by Luc Besson. You can throw in there a hint of Sin City as well, if you like. My point is, that beyond displaying the torment that a damaged, borderline rabid person goes through facing an impossible situation, there is not much else to see here. And I can find better things to do with my time than to watch a 90 minutes long torture porn.