You can tell an actor is on a roll when he is cast as Christ and a merciless killer in the course of a single season. After his idiosyncratic Jesus in Mary Magdalene (see review below), Joaquin Phoenix rises again as Joe, the world-weary assassin of You Were Never Really Here (★★, 15, 85 mins), director Lynne Ramsay’s take on Jonathan Ames’s novel.
Bulked out and hoodied-up, Phoenix is the centrepiece of a violent jigsaw puzzle bearing edges so sharp they could take your eye out. Ramsay’s New York bloodbath has been drawing comparisons to Martin Scorsese’s landmark Taxi Driver, yet the most apt review perhaps lies in wait among a police bulletin’s final lines: approach with caution, if at all.
A dishevelled hulk of scar tissue held together by muscle memories of some still-vivid trauma, Joe spends his lonely downtime pondering how to end his torment: his hobby would appear to be sticking his head in plastic bags. As for his uptime, all we need to observe is the way he eyes the ball-peen hammers in his local hardware store.
Not for this thug the clean kills of a silenced gun; his tendency to absent himself from rooms, conversations and normal society stems from an awareness that no good can come from his being around. Even when he gains renewed purpose – undertaking to rescue a girl from a child sex ring – we can only fear the worst.
Everything about the film has been designed to make its audience flinch. As 2011’s We Need to Talk About Kevin suggested, Ramsay has become increasingly fascinated by the evil that men do, and increasingly forceful in her methods of putting that evil across. When Joe squishes a jellybean between his fingers, it registers as if a planet had been vaporised, so you can imagine the impact when somebody’s brains get blown out.
There’s skill behind the shock tactics – Joe Bini’s editing sublimates the worst exploitation – but I felt that Ramsay was pursuing this vision of dead-end masculinity into a creative dead end of her own. Not even her thoroughly committed star could sell me on Joe’s late and phoney-seeming redemption.
By paring her cinema to the bone, Ramsay has abandoned the lyricism that elevated her breakthrough works: how the balloons floated towards the moon in Ratcatcher, and how Samantha Morton’s face lit up upon hearing a certain song in Morvern Callar. (The one vaguely comparable sequence here, involving Charlene’s deathless one-hit wonder I’ve Never Been to Me, just smacks of glib Tarantino-ism.)
In an increasingly ruthless marketplace, empty violence is one means of impressing yourself upon producers, critics and audiences. But as any halfway serious student of Joe’s sorrows would intuit, it’s no way to spend your evenings, and not especially good for the soul.