The only thing I don't like about 2018's You Were Never Really Here is the title. It fits the film's themes but it's a little on the nose and beyond that there's something altogether flat in the sound of it. But the film itself is one of the best vigilante fantasy films I've seen in years, that kind of film that typically gets mislabelled as a noir--as indeed this one has been--but You Were Never Really Here has a lot more in common with Death Wish or Sin City than it does with Double Indemnity or Chinatown. Director Lynne Ramsay does a good job of capturing the constant psychological presence of past trauma for the vigilante even as he spends most of his time casually dominating scores of nameless dirtbags.
Joaquin Phoenix plays Joe, the vigilante, serious as a funeral, with only a little of the ironic humour often seen in this kind of character. He's former military--we get some flashbacks to a desert setting and troops--and former FBI. Now he's a gun for hire for an underground criminal network. He accepts jobs to brutally punish child sex traffickers.
In his idle moments he sticks his pocket knife down his throat or drops it over his bare foot, giving himself a split second to pull his foot out of the way, which he always manages. He's addicted to the nearness of pain and injury, as well as to chemical stimulants. The only things keeping him going are his elderly, simple hearted mother (Judith Roberts), with whom he lives, and saving and avenging victims of sex trafficking.
Phoenix is really good in this movie. There are scenes where you can see the grief and rage being restrained for pragmatic reasons, all the layers visible on the actor's face. I like how he bulked up for the movie, too--he's not Hollywood muscular.
Clearly very strong but with fat, too. These aren't exhibition muscles, these are muscles developed as tools and he doesn't need his body for anything else.
The main plot involves a job where Joe needs to rescue a senator's teenage daughter, Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), and brutally murder her captors. Naturally, unexpected complications arise.
Joe and Nina's relationship has some shades of Leon or Logan or any number of other movies about a deadly older man befriending or teaming up with a young girl. Nina isn't developed very much, though, functioning as more of a living prop for most of the film while we remain in Joe's point of view. There's something ethereal and icy about her that is cool--her experiences have apparently made her unable to access or display her emotions and we're invited to contemplate her impassive face as she counts down while lying in bed or silently stares through the rain drops on a car window.
Mostly we're inside Joe's mood. The music by Jonny Greenwood is particularly striking with lots of weird percussion that help establish Joe as dangerous and erratic--though of course he only ever hurts bad guys--at the beginning of the film. Towards the end, the music, along with the visuals, starts to recall Stanley Kubrick as Ramsay seeks to emphasise Joe's paradoxical helplessness and inability to have a satisfactory effect on his world. But the film is ultimately an elegant and satisfying specimen of pulp. You Were Never Really Here is available on Amazon Prime.