You Were Never Really Here is a fourth feature from Lynne Ramsay (Ratcatcher, Morvern Callar, We Need to Talk About Kevin) and the first thing to say is that it is exceptionally violent. I don’t say this disapprovingly but if your threshold for violence is as low as mine — I incurred a paper cut the other day and passed clean out — it will prove an 89-minute ordeal. Still, it has been described as ‘the Taxi Driver for the 21st century’, if that is of help while you’re bracing yourself for the next hammer blow. Personally, I found it of no help at all. Also, it’s untrue.
The film stars a bulked-up Joaquin Phoenix as Joe, a tortured hit man, and it opens as it means to go on. That is, not prettily. Joe is in a Cincinnati hotel room with a plastic bag over his head self-asphyxiating, although whether this is auto-erotica or a suicide attempt isn’t made clear, just as little is ever made clear. It’s horrific to watch, as the bag sucks in, blows out, sucks in, blows out. But then he rips it off — thank God! — and moves on to his next task, which is washing a bloodied hammer. (Oh.) He’s concluded a job, we can assume, and exits the hotel’s back entrance where an attacker seems to be lying in wait. But you don’t mess with Joe. Crunch! That’s the attacker, getting a head-butt for his trouble. Next, it’s back home to Queens, where Joe lives with his mother (a fabulous Judith Roberts) and is hired for his next job: finding a senator’s missing 13-year-old daughter. (Always a missing child; never a missing cheesemonger.) Joe seems to specialise in rescuing sex-trafficked girls, and this one is holed up in a Manhattan brothel, which he enters politely, after wiping his feet.