Funnily enough, the clue is in the title, in how it is so obtuse – hardly an easily-digestible title or a direct explanation of what the film is about, You Were Never Really Here is actually a sort of arthouse version of The Equalizer, carrying a major actor in its lead just like The Equalizer did (here Joaquin Phoenix as the hand of justice similar to that Denzel Washington played in The Equalizer). We have criminals at large and under the shiny veneer of civilized society a sex-ring that needs breaking up and a young girl busting out. I know I make this sound like a straight exploitation thriller or something, and deep down inside its dark heart it is.
But while I like films doing things differently and have no aversion to arthouse movies I have to wonder if maybe mainstream stuff like The Equalizer (or Taken, etc, before it) actually do it better. You Were Never Really Here fascinates in its examination of protagonist Joe (Phoenix) a broken man traumatised from childhood who has a proclivity for claw-hammers when dealing with ‘private security’ and doing work outside of the law such as rescuing abducted girls. The problem with the film is that it proves as fragmented as Joe’s slowly crumbling mind, the film itself an unreliable narrator. There is a sex-trafficking ring and paedophilia and a conspiracy involving, it seems, government and judiciary, but it is really quite deliberately vague. Things sort of seem to go on around an increasingly confused Joe whose flashbacks seem to suggest he’s a man who should be in a mental hospital rather than dealing out violent justice.
There were times when I thought that this film really wanted to be a modern-day Taxi Driver and if that’s the case, its a bit of a misfire. Taxi Driver was dark and disturbing but it was always cohesive, and I don’t think You Were Never Really Here was at all. It is not a bad film, but it doesn’t really need to be so consciously clever or alternatively baffling. Perhaps it works better on second viewing, as some of the plot details are a bit hard to fathom on first showing- some viewers will feel this is refreshing but I just think its bad storytelling. Joaquin Phoenix is as always quite excellent, albeit having so recently seen him in Mary Magdalene and seeing him sporting Jesus’ beard in You Were Never Really Here proves rather distracting. Maybe in retrospect it was too soon, or I wound up watching the two films in the wrong order. These things happen.