Before Bryan Singer made Marvel's Wolverine into a tall, handsome, ripped Australian, the comic book killer was a stocky, broken murderer with a moral code. He was, as he would remind everyone, the best there is at what he does, and what he does isn't very nice. Oddly, in a year in which everyone has half-joked that every sci-fi property is a stealth Cloverfield sequel, Ramsay (Ratcatcher, Morvern Callar) has hidden that vision of Wolverine, that conflicted death dealer, within a grimy, gritty crime drama that sears through the darkest of American underbellies.
Her avatar of vengeance is Joe (Phoenix), a bloody-handed brute with a soft tone and a hard hammer hand, who walks from murdering murderers to tending for his ailing, senile mother (Roberts), all while battling a suicidal streak a mile wide. Through elegant, understated flashbacks, Ramsay paints precisely and tragically how he came to be so shattered, but also why he is more than just a mob enforcer. It also explains his particular wrath when a state senator (Manette) turns up with a wad of cash and a story that his underage daughter (Samsonov) has been kidnapped and is being kept as a sex toy for the rich and depraved.
If Ramsay's 2011 melancholy masterpiece We Need to Talk About Kevin was about the consequences of caring too little, You Were Never Really Here is its polar opposite – a story of a man who cares so much that his soul is bleeding out of every pore. In a more stylish, less moral, much cooler world, Joe would be John Wick, but here he's a vengeful cleaner, sent to do terrible things to those that deserve it. Ramsay shoots his operations with the same lean, clinical skill with which he executes them: a master class in melding of performance and editing. In between those moments of purpose, she lets the camera linger on his hopelessness, his life of re-enforcing his cold conviction that the most terrible will win.
Yet even for those moments of ultraviolence, this is not a conventional action drama. Ramsay carries two touchstones in her pocket – the oft-imitated British crime drama Get Carter and the amorality fable Hardcore – and, like both of those classics, her work is far from afraid to drag the audience through a little mud. Their stories of strong men hoping to find a little redemption through rescuing an innocent in the grips of nefarious perverts were riddled with paternalism. But in Phoenix – wet-eyed, with a muscled yet flabby body, built for go not show – she finds a more sympathetic, fractured figure. He kills to avoid anyone else suffering what has happened to him, or more often to get a little bloody resolution. God's not home, so it's Joe and a hammer. In this irredeemable world, maybe that's enough.
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