The prospective client, a state senator whose daughter has gone missing, sizes up the hired killer across the table. “Cleary said you were brutal,” he says, not without hope. “I can be,” is the measured response.
The same could be said for Lynne Ramsay, the Scottish-born writer-director whose too-few films balance beauty and mayhem like no others. “You Were Never Really Here” arrives in theaters after cutting a ragged swath across the festival circuit for nearly a year after its debut at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won Joaquin Phoenix a best actor award and Ramsay a screenwriting statue. It is violent, sad, tender, and alive, and it is as assured a piece of moviemaking as you’ll ever see.
The plot and Ramsay’s unnerving stylistic control have drawn comparisons to “Taxi Driver,” and, on its surface, “You Were Never Really Here” fits into the established subgenre of sympathetic hitmen. From the very first frames, though, we understand that Joe (Phoenix) is especially damaged and emotionally frail. On the outside he’s a figure out of nightmare, a barrel-chested hulk with an Old Testament beard and a bloody ball-peen hammer in his hand. Only Ramsay and we hear the voices in his head and sense the small, frightened child he used to be.
Joe lives in Queens with his aging mother (Judith Roberts of “Orange Is the New Black”), a long-faded beauty with whom he has a sweetly playful relationship that’s not above the occasional “Psycho” joke. They’re both survivors, but Joe’s scars are visible.
The storyline follows the contours and conventions of noir, suspense, and detective films: Joe’s middleman, Cleary (John Doman), bland and businesslike, sets him up with a job for the senator (Alex Manette), whose rebellious 13-year-old (Ekaterina Samsonov) has disappeared and is possibly being held captive in a fancy Manhattan brothel catering to men of particular tastes. “I want them to be hurt,” the senator says. There are complications, of course, and if there’s a flaw with the film it’s that its bones are so completely familiar.
Nothing else about “You Were Never Really Here” is at all conventional. Ramsay is one of those gifted naturals who seem born to filmmaking, and everything here feels freshly and terribly seen. The settings are anonymous but vividly framed by cinematographer Tom Townend; the editing (Joe Bini) and an otherworldly approach to sound design (by Paul Davies, who has worked on all Ramsay’s features) push the audience into an off-kilter psychological landscape.
As she has in her previous films, “Ratcatcher” (1999), “Morvern Callar” (2002), and “We Need to Talk About Kevin” (2011) — the only one where the approach felt arch and overdone — Ramsay uses pop songs new and old along with broodingly lyrical original music to bring us further into a dangerous enchanted land. Here the scoring is by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, whose soundtrack for “Phantom Thread” was one of the glories of 2017. An antediluvian doo-wop classic, “Angel Baby,” by Rosie and the Originals is used to creepy, taunting effect when Joe eventually metes out righteousness at the brothel.
“You Were Never Really Here” is violent — at times, very — but never in ways we expect or that play according to the rules. Heinous deaths occur off-camera or unfold in the silent gray and white frame of a closed-circuit TV screen. Joe and one of his victims share a quiet moment as the latter slowly expires and an easy-listening ’80s hit plays on a kitchen radio. The film’s innocents are, generally speaking, its most deadly.
Through it all walks Phoenix as Joe, and rarely has this mercurial actor seemed so simultaneously threatening and vulnerable, unstoppable and lost. Ramsay gives us just enough flashbacks to underscore how much cruelty her hero has seen, on battlefields and elsewhere, and those livid grace notes allow Phoenix to create a nearly wordless performance that relies on his bulk and the bottomless blue sadness of his eyes. By the midway mark, we’ve come to understand that Joe needs saving as much as the girl. Ramsay crafts a redemption that’s both holy and profane.
YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE
Written and directed by Lynne Ramsay, based on a novel by Jonathan Ames. Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Judith Roberts, Ekaterina Samsonov, Alessandro Nivola. At Kendall Square. 89 minutes. R (strong violence, disturbing and grisly images, language, brief nudity).