I began to lose count of the murders in You Were Never Really Here around the halfway mark. The film is only ninety minutes long, so quite a lot of carnage is crammed into it. Sometimes, the violence takes place just past the edge of the frame. Several gruesomely bloody scenes are interspersed with many bloodless yet no less visceral ones. The film’s opening shot shows a man with a plastic bag tied over his head, close to suffocation. Things only get more brutal after that.
You Were Never Really Here concerns a hitman, known only as Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), who specialises in extracting young girls from situations of sexual trafficking. Joe is the kind of guy who enters a building by the fire escape and then leaves again the same way, having caused mayhem in between. When he’s not out and about murdering traffickers, he looks after his ageing, fragile mother (Judith Roberts) and engages in rounds of auto-asphyxiation. It’s Joe we see in the opening shot, suffocating himself. Staccato flashbacks throughout the film yank us back to Joe’s childhood, which was marred by domestic violence, and to his former career as a US army soldier.
Phoenix combines nervous energy and nervous exhaustion in his portrayal of a man whose life has been blighted by fear and violence. Phoenix has transformed himself physically for the role, grown bearded and bulky, and his presence must carry a film that has little dialogue and few roles, apart from his. There isn’t a great deal of plot, either. For $50,000, Joe is hired to rescue Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), a young runaway who has fallen into the clutches of a New York paedophile ring. Nina’s father happens to be a high-ranking city politician; he demands of Joe both secrecy and ruthlessness. ‘I want you to hurt them,’ he says. But the rescue goes wrong, which was probably bound to happen: it’s hard to maintain discretion when you’ve hired a hitman whose weapon of choice is a hammer.