We first meet Joe — his face shadowed, his breathing heavy — as he cleans up after a night of work. Th tools of his trade include a roll of duct tape and a ball-peen hammer smeared with blood, which might lead us to believe that we have entered the world of a serial killer. The girl whose picture is briefly glimpsed might be his latest victim. An aura of dread and violence is summoned by the off-center images, the syncopations of the editing and the relentless hum and throb of Jonny Greenwood’s score.
Before long we understand that Joe is a rescuer and avenger rather than a predator: a survivor of war and child abuse who now specializes in delivering young women from evil. That Joe is officially a good guy isn’t much comfort, either to him or to the audience, who will spend the 90 minutes of Lynne Ramsay’s “You Were Never Really Here” in his fractured, anxious and desperately sad reality.
Played by a burly, bearded, brooding Joaquin Phoenix, Joe is a man haunted by grief and tormented (but also comforted) by thoughts of suicide. He is capable of gentleness — with his fragile, half-senile mother (Judith Roberts) and with Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), a girl he tries to save from sex traffickers — and also of ferocious cruelty, directed at himself and his targets. “I hear you can be brutal,” a potential client says. By the time that line is uttered, we know that it’s a drastic understatement.
The movie, based on a nasty, 90-page novella by Jonathan Ames, is brutal, too, less in its graphic violence — though there is plenty of that — than in the grisly intensity of its mood. The plot, which involves an all-the-way-to-the-top kidnapping conspiracy catering to the depravities of powerful men, is lurid and preposterous, an episode of “Law and Order SVU” amplified with self-conscious “Taxi Driver” overtones. A different version of the story would have brought out the weary sentimentality of Mr. Ames’s book, and turned its pulpy genre poses into sub-superhero clichés. But Ms. Ramsay, an uncompromising and iconoclastic British filmmaker whose earlier features include “Ratcatcher,” “Morvern Callar” and “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” has never had much use for plot.
Or rather, she uses conventional narrative elements as scaffolding for the emotional effects and psychological explorations that are her primary interests. “You Were Never Really Here” is less concerned with what Joe does or why he does it than with how it feels to be in his skin and in his head.
Mr. Phoenix serves Ms. Ramsay’s vision with disciplined doggedness. His lines would probably fit on an index card, and none of them are especially memorable. But the sound of his breathing, his groans of frustration and his gasps of panic, his occasional squalls of weeping are hard to forget. Even if his adventures in a netherworld of abuse are not especially credible — or even if they are, to some extent, the product of his own disordered mind — there is something powerful in his agony.