Screening at the very end of the Cannes Film Festival's competition, and rumored to have been finished the very week of its premiere, Scottish director Lynne Ramsay’s adaptation of Jonathan Ames’s novel You Were Never Really Here is a genre film so fiercely empathetic and brutally honed that its harsh impulse seems precariously mysterious. A bearded, dark-eyed Joaquin Phoenix plays a New York mercenary hired through shady means to retrieve lost girls and sex slaves, something he does with brute efficiently in baggy jeans and bulky hoody, armed only with a store-bought hammer and singular purpose. Quick flashes of traumatic memories—a technique so anarchronistic as to seem surprisingly lazy—detail the scars of the man’s psyche, damaged from abuse as a child and time both in the military and FBI—pain that rears itself in multiple flirtations with suicide throughout the picture. Utilizing his skillset for a dark but righteous purpose, popping pills and living with his aged mother, the film moves like a stripped down remix of Taxi Driver’s sociopathic focus—as well as its shades of political paranoia and rancor—the vulnerable and anguished character studies of James Gray, and Taken’s mechanical genre satisfaction.
Yet Ramsay, who has made only two features in the last 15 years, brings a subtle but completely unique sensibility to the story, implying rather than showing most of the violence and allowing the flushed distress of Phoenix’s performance to set the tone and drive the mise en scène. Werner Herzog's editor Joe Bini keeps the picture clipped and quick, and Jonny Greenwood's stellar score of dissonant funk accentuates the fleet, forward-stumbling sense of disorientation. When Phoenix joins a gutshot hitman dying on the floor of his house for what first starts as an interrogation and turns into a communion, the sense of sorrow and lostness lacerates and cauterizes the story's expectations. That on the bleeding man’s lapel is a small American flag underscores You Were Never Really Here’s thin but frightening, staining suggestion that the American government haunts not only this veteran’s past, but also persecutes his wounded present. His wayward bewilderment is matched by that of a senator's kidnapped girl (Ekaterina Samsonov) he must track down, herself now addled and disconnected by horrible, unseen abuses. As in Andrew Dominik’s inferior Killing Them Softly from the Cannes competition five years ago, You Were Never Really There is everything we expect from a genre film but passed through a strange, shrouded mirror, a prototypical American film but seen from another angle. In an official competition selection that was most exhausting from its bloated sense of purpose and grandeur, Lynne Ramsay’s lean and discomfiting perspective is a welcome one, joining the Safdie brothers’ grubby, propulsive street-level vision of a New York crime film, Good Time, as a one-two punch of human-scaled reinventions of old standards.