Stunning You Were Never Really Here plays like a contemporary Taxi Driver

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      Starring Joaquin Phoenix. Rated 18A

      Can a movie be exhilarating and agonizingly depressing at the same time? So it is with You Were Never Really Here, not only one of the most excitingly crafted films to come out in years, but also one of the most intensely unsettling. Like a contemporary Taxi Driver without all the talking, the movie marks one of Joaquin Phoenix’s most fearless performances. Which is, of course, saying something.

      When we first meet Phoenix’s Joe, he’s cleaning up a crime scene, meticulously wiping off a hammer and stashing personal belongings in a trash bag. He appears to be a serial killer, but we soon learn that’s not exactly the case. He’s “private security”, a hired hand whose weapon of choice is a ball-peen hammer—a device that adequately captures the way the poetically brutal You Were Never Really Here hits you.

      Joe is one of those sinister, shadowy hooded figures you see lurking in alleyways, sporting a scruffy grey beard, scars across his back, and brute-force bulk. He’s by turns savage and self-destructive. His preferred pastime is suffocating himself to near-unconsciousness in whatever plastic bag is handy, and in Scottish direcor Lynne Ramsay’s mesmerizing elliptical style, we’re served brief flashes of the traumas he survived in childhood and war service that still torment him. Gradually, we see Joe’s vulnerable, empathetic side too, whether it’s helping his aging mother polish her silver, or singing Charlene’s relentlessly cheery “I’ve Never Been to Me” with a dying victim.

      Phoenix’s nuanced yet epic performance—the guy’s perfected pushing the brink of losing control—melds well with Ramsay’s impressionistic style. Her broodily terrifying world supercedes the implausibilities of the main storyline. New York becomes a grim nightmare of convenience stores and cheap hotels, the throbbing electronic score by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood only adding to the sense of doom.

      Joe gets caught up in a ghastly, high-reaching conspiracy there. But that’s not really what hammers you. Instead, it’s the way Ramsay builds visceral dread without exploiting violence; one vicious attack is filtered through the blinking screen of a security camera. As she did in Morvern Callar, the director creates a delirious realm that sometimes slips out of reality—because the main character is losing his grip.

      You Were Never Really Here pries inside the character’s monumentally fucked-up head, and it pries inside your head, too. It’s never easy to watch, but, like we said, it’s exhilarating.