Fourth feature from the button-pushing Lynne Ramsay, YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE pits Joaquin Phoenix's emotionally blocked veteran Joe against a sordid child prostitution ring, meanwhile he is also seeking an outlet from the besetting trauma of his checkered past.
It is a gut-wrenching story on paper, but Ramsay configures sundry conceits to present a "reductive" diorama of the events, and the most prominent one is the viewpoint, which never deflects from Joe, hence signifies that there will be no lengthy flashback sequences to inform us what he has experienced (as a child, a soldier, etc.), only through the transient fragments of memory incessantly penetrating into Joe's heads, audience can piece it together proximately, but never the full picture, because for once, we don't need to know it, what is at stake here is its traumatic after effect.
Secondly, Lamsay flags up a bloated/beefed-up Phoenix's body metamorphosis, which brings about the corporeal testimony of what he has been suffering from, transferred through Ramsay's hyper-real observation (scars, bruise, etc.). Joe's knee-jerking coping mechanism towards the bane is self-suffocation, a leitmotif repeatedly wielded to induce our own gasping response, resounds hauntingly with the self-initiated count-down of Nina (Samsonov), the girl whom Joe is hellbent on rescuing from her pedophiliac abusers. Phoenix won BEST ACTOR is Cannes (along with Ramsay's script win), deservedly, his performance is arrestingly measured, profoundly unaffected but deeply affecting, because he invites us to care for Joe, a laconic, middle-aged, mom's boy, a damaged good whose weapon of choice is a hammer, he makes good as a brutal enforcer, using violence to repress his disturbed state, which is caused by violence/abuse itself, it is a vicious circle he cannot outrun, and we can pour out our sympathy to him when a bereft Joe decides to end his life in the lake (with the sublimely beauteous underwater stillness) before thinks better of it or near the denouement, a startled figment of his imagination prompts a perversely comical/shocking combo.
Last but not the least, it is about how Ramsay choose to present its action of brutality, and she ingeniously points up its "aftermath" instead of showing the actual execution (during his first rescuing attempt inside a high-end New York apartment building, Joe's action is entirely captured by the fuzzy security camera), violence itself is ephemeral, what lingers behind is its aftermath, tangible, grisly and immutable. When Joe finally loses it after seeing what Nina has done (a big letdown to fans of Alessandro Nivola though), it is a scathing brickbat towards the state of affairs without the help of conventional verbosity, and inaugurates Joe's mental ablutions of his own existence.
In the event, Ramsay's clean-cut, existential thriller owns to a lucid consciousness of its sensitive material, brilliant aptitude in its visual and sound literacy, also the film allows humor (a sprightly Judith Roberts as Joe's dotage-afflicted mother, sharing meta-PSYCHO joke in communion), and psychic vision (that moment when Joe realizes who is the culprit in his mind-scape) into the play, the main takeaway for me is the unexpected tendresse between Joe and a hit-man he has mortally injured (Price), lying together on the floor, humming along Charlene's '80s one-hit-wonder I'VE NEVER BEEN TO ME on the radio, and holding their hands, is the song really the answer to the film's English title? You were never really here and I've never been to me, either. Touché!