Joaquin Phoenix elevates grim, gory ‘You Were Never Really Here’

You Were Never Really Here
Alison Cohen Rosa / Amazon Studios/Courtesy

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Grade: 3.5/5.0

“You Were Never Really Here” is, in many ways, as harrowing of a film to experience as it is a poetic one. Director Lynne Ramsay (“Morvern Callar,” “We Need to Talk About Kevin”) infuses her film with a sense of unease then immediate terror, shock then immediate tranquility.

Boasting an astonishingly committed, convincing portrayal of trauma by Joaquin Phoenix, “You Were Never Really Here” succeeds in presenting its audience with an abstract portrait of a war veteran, burdened by his past, navigating tragedy in the world around him. Despite the jarring tonal inconsistency of its abstract narrative, the film never fails to unnerve, impact and provoke.

Joe (Phoenix) is a middle-aged Gulf War veteran living in vibrant New York City. Because of his own agonizing experiences — witnessing disturbing incidents in his childhood and violence during his service — Joe has become unblinking in the face of brutality. Because of this, he settles comfortably into his new job as a hitman, responsible for recovering missing teenagers.

In between moments of taking care of his frail, anxious old mother (Judith Roberts), saving victims and attacking their abusers, Joe must address his own periodic hallucinations of suicide attempts and violent encounters. Eventually, the line between reality and hallucination is blurred, and Joe’s day-to-day life plays out like a fever dream of psychological trauma and the quiet humdrum of daily tasks.

The film settles into a storyline when Joe must confront a case involving a senator’s missing teenage daughter, Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov). As Joe attempts to protect Nina from understanding the horrors of her own situation, he gradually finds her to be his sole reason to stay alive.

Ramsay is keen on leaving the interpretation of reality and dream to the audience. Here, she chooses to linger on visuals for an extended period of time, before sharply cutting to the next scene. These cuts ensure that the audience never settles into one emotion for too long but experiences each emotion with the utmost intensity.

The result is unsettling discomfort during the film’s slow examinations of gore or a fearful sadness at the imagery of young girls in distress. Ramsay balances the thriller and dramatic genres throughout, but she sacrifices tonal consistency. While this tonal ambiguity contributes to the abstract, nebulous nature of the film, many viewers will be off put by the constant need to adjust their perspective.

The relationship between Joe and Nina — that of a traumatized man serving as a protector — is particularly complex, and relies on several moments of silent, powerful connection between Phoenix and Samsonov on screen. While Phoenix delivers a consistently shocking and grueling performance as the central character, Samsonov shines in her brief time onscreen. She portrays Nina’s quiet awareness with the utmost sincerity; with few lines, she conveys potent emotional complexity through her piercing eyes alone.

At just an hour and a half in length, the film never wastes a moment in effective storytelling. Ramsay emphasizes the scene-by-scene structure of the film, including as much visual information while minimizing character dialogue. The audience is never spoon-fed any background information about characters. Instead, the film encourages viewers to “fill in the blanks” — its use of cultural iconography offers an effective shorthand.

It’s an intellectually stimulating but frustrating process; with so much left to interpret, understanding the general narrative of the film itself becomes difficult. But Ramsay refuses to shy away from the challenge — the audience is given no clear answers to Joe’s dilemmas and is forced to experience a fractional amount of Joe’s own daily experience.

Additionally, an unnerving and haunting score by Jonny Greenwood creates a soundscape ranging from gentle whispers to brash instrumentals. Greenwood threads ambiguity through every deliberately constructed scene of “You Were Never Really Here,” allowing plenty of room for the audience’s interpretation.

By refusing to shy away from darkness and brutality, “You Were Never Really Here” is never an easy film to watch. But it is a testament to addressing one’s trauma in the most personal, direct sense — an unsettling, but audacious work of art.

“You Were Never Really Here” opens at Embarcadero Center Cinema on Thursday.

Anagha Komaragiri covers film. Contact her at [email protected].