In the often grisly "You Were Never Really Here," the protagonist's weapon of choice is a ball-peen hammer. In many ways, Lynne Ramsay's adaptation of Jonathan Ames' novel functions like that hammer, a blunt instrument used to righteous ends. The film tends to the lurid and horrifying, the brutal and harrowing, and yet Ramsay's limber direction and another phenomenal leading performance by Joaquin Phoenix lend the material an aching sensitivity and an arrhythmic but persistent heartbeat.
Phoenix plays Joe, whose contract work for a private detective (John Doman) has a specialty: extracting children from sex slavery. Joe's life of trauma -- from childhood abuse to a Marine stint in the Persian Gulf to FBI investigations of sex traffickers -- uniquely motivate him, but the spiders in his mind and his emotional baggage also make him vulnerable. Joe suffers guilt that manifests as the ghosts of those he feels he has failed, including his childhood self. To stave off suicide, Joe does good works, caring for his elderly mother when not rescuing children.
On his latest mission to save the 13-year-old daughter of a state senator, Joe runs into escalating trouble that plays out in a series of plot twists. The collision of sex trafficking and politics spells do-or-die stakes for all involved, and Joe's maddening underworld descent into the very worst of human nature - - where violence is the only language that matters -- recalls Paul Schrader's scripts for "Taxi Driver" and "Hardcore." Ramsay respects the viewer's intelligence by refusing to spoon-feed or spell out; rather, she applies deliberately jagged editing and unsettlingly patchwork scoring to complicate the perspective on an otherwise straightforward plot.
For, on paper, "You Were Never Really Here" sounds as if it could be a 1980s Charles Bronson movie: Violent male vigilante saves vulnerable females. But Ramsay, the celebrated Scottish filmmaker of "Ratcatcher" and "We Need to Talk About Kevin," isn't satisfied with sensation. Rather, she unfolds a spare but potent character study about grasping for grace and salvation amid horror. In Phoenix, she has a thoroughbred actor exceptionally well-qualified to convey trauma, grief, guilt, sadness and rage. It's not for nothing that he won Best Actor at the Cannes Film Festival for this performance: he's arguably the greatest American film actor at work today.
The novel's author, Jonathan Ames, may be better known as the creator of dry-witted cable-TV comedies "Bored to Death" and "Blunt Talk," and fans of those shows may be surprised by the sadism here. There's little that might be called comic relief, although Ramsay makes deliciously ironic use of vintage tunes ranging from "I've Never Been to Me" to "If I Knew You Were Comin' (I'd Have Baked a Cake)." The film is, as they say, not for the faint of heart, but moviegoers will find its disturbing journey well worth taking in the good company or Ramsay and Phoenix.