2017’s gritty thriller “You Were Never Really Here” with lead Joaquin Phoenix adds a notable film to the actor’s already impressive resume. Rather than going the typical route of the genre and focusing on utter madness and horrifying jump scares, “You Were Never Really Here” instead takes an understated, moodier, arthouse approach to crime and the battle for justice.
Phoenix plays Joe, a hitman who rescues young girls stuck in the sleazy human trafficking industry and uses his brute force to kill those who held them captive. Joe is a war veteran, a grizzly, rough-and-tug type of man with beefy biceps and a long beard. One look at him and you know he plays for real.
Joe’s past is littered with childhood abuse from his father and gruesome acts he was involved in during his years serving in the military. An emotional yet outwardly strong man, he is plagued by his past which frequently surfaces during spouts of PTSD. While upon initial viewing it seems like Joe is the bad guy, it’s later in the film that you realize he’s the one saving the day. Or in this case, saving minors from the traumas of coerced sex work.
Set in New York City, the blurs of nighttime lights and street chatter contribute a dramatic element to the otherwise quiet film. Unlike how other high-action, crime thrillers of modern day rely heavily on loud gunshots and pulsating rap music during their fight scenes, “You Were Never Really Here” barely features any audio at all aside from Joe’s dialogue and natural sounds like foot steps and traffic. It’s this almost poetic nature that sets the film apart from its contenders, standing out amongst ultraviolent gorefests popular of today. Also, its intensity is hardly contained within its 90-minute length.
Phoenix’s previous hit roles include Ridley Scott’s 2000 epic “Gladiator,” M. Night Shyamalan’s “Signs” and “The Village” respectively, and Spike Jonze’s 2013 sci-fi love story “Her.” Phoenix went on a hiatus after his 2010 rap mockumentary “I’m Still Here” failed to make any impact or receive any acclaim from critics. He returned in 2012 and has since starred in ten feature films.
The importance of “You Were Never Really Here” in addition to Phoenix’s acting resume provides a more complex, sensitive role than he has played in the past. While he did sappily fall in love with his computer in “Her” and play another WWII vet in “The Master,” neither shed insight on the scope of his true abilities.
By playing Joe, Phoenix sheds his skin and underwent not only a buffing of his physical appearance, but also stripped down to his bare emotional spectrum to understand the delicacy in which to play hitman Joe. More than just a hitman, he plays a savior to these young girls enslaved in the sex trade whilst remaining brawny and vulnerable, achieving a complexity unpracticed by most Hollywood heavyweights.