When told that Joe's weapon of choice is a ball-peen hammer, you expect to sit through a movie with graphic and uncomfortable intensity. Surprisingly though, Ramsay's scenes of physical violence are economical. However, the intensity comes in Phoenix's mental violence and character struggles. In an opening scene, you see his head wrapped in plastic bag as he self-asphyxiates and you're not sure whether he is contemplating suicide or pursuing the space as some sort of solace. Ramsay is as unsparing here as anywhere else -- for a few moments, you feel as if you're suffocating with Joe in that closet, and you feel the same panicky lack of air he would.
You Were Never Really Here is based on a novella by Jonathan Ames of the same name, but it views more like a graphic novel come to life. There are the same murky, vigilantic tones, and the same vibrant and stylistic slashes of color. Ramsay's take is short on story, and there's nothing in there that is new. Joe is another vigilante with nebulous intentions, perhaps seeking redemption in his quests to save wayward girls. In the beginning, there's a fuzzy line between him and the men he takes down. We first see visual trophies like a trinket or a girl snapshot, as if he himself were a predator, before he burns them. Joe is a dangerous character, assured while on the job but completely unpredictable out of it.
What makes this film different from something akin to The Punisher, is Ramsay's unmistakable style. She is able to convey the palpitations and overwhelming abrasiveness inside Joe's skin. There's a too loud pumping soundtrack going on when Joe isn't pummeled by the screeching noises of every day life. And the colors are so vibrant and emotive -- there's the grit of an at first unidentifiable foot scraping in the yellow sand, the blue bathhouse that steams Joe's soul, and the tones of the rain. Ramsay has always been able to convey discomfort through color (who could forget the red curtain scene from We Need to Talk About Kevin where Tilda Swinton was swathed in a hot, red-lidded haze?).
The film is elevated by Ramsay's second collaboration with composer Jonny Greenwood. Greenwood has always been able to depict an assault of senses via percussive strings, but there are scenes here that are undeniably made better because of his musicality. A particularly visually stunning underwater scene is made heartbreaking thanks to Greenwood's score. This soundtrack seems far worthier of an Oscar nom, given Greenwood's range from lyrical to Penderecki-like, able to encompass both the beauty and the overwhelming tumult of Joe's mind.
Other than a few scenes, it's hard to get much out of Joe despite Phoenix's as always incredible acting. You want more of a connection between him and the girl he's rescuing for most of the movie. But she's so understandably remote, you're neither sure of his motivation or their relationship. And despite all that happens in the movie, this chapter seems very much like a small blip in the ongoing noise of Joe's soul.
You Were Never Really Here ultimately has less to say than something like Scorsese's thematically similar Taxi Driver, but is worth it because of the energy of Ramsay and Phoenix's first-time collaboration, bottling something both visually and cinematically firework-like.