Anyone paying serious attention to modern cinema is well aware that Joaquin Phoenix’s stock as an actor has certainly been on the rise during the last decade. Those bearing witness to his latest performance in the mood piece You Were Never Really Here, would need no further proof when looking for an example than the work found in the film. You can hardly take your eyes off of the actor as he sweats and strains, both physically and emotionally, throughout the events that unfold during the nearly ninety minute running time of the film. It’s a performance that needs to be singled out at the end of the calendar year. Yes, it’s that strong.

And, yet, we all know that a stirring performance doesn’t necessarily make a great film and here is a prime example of that very thing being played out right in front of our eyes. The lead performance in You Were Never Really Here is about the only thing of merit to be found in the pic. The narrative, based on the novella by Jonathan Ames (and very loosely, one suspects) and adapted by the film’s director Lynne Ramsay, is haphazard at best and moves in fits and starts. Since Ramsay insists on making her style trump any substance the film might have had all we’re left with is Phoenix doing what he’s best known for when it comes to playing the wounded characters that seem to litter his body of work lately. His dialogue is reduced to mumbles in many scenes and he relies a great deal on his physical tics as much as anything else.

Phoenix’s character in the film is Joe. Joe is basically a survivor as we learn from flashbacks that he was abused as a child and also did a military stint from which he’s still traumatized. Joe spends his days taking care of his mother, now in the throes of senility, and rescuing young girls who’ve been lured into sex trafficking operations. Joe serves justice with his trusty ole ball peen hammer and a roll of duct tape which seems to work well enough until he finds himself a pawn in a game of some sort when a political figurehead requests that Joe help him to locate his daughter. Unfortunately, Ramsay never makes it exactly clear as to who’s double-crossing whom.  Well, at least I lost track.

You Were Never Really Here is the kind of film that can be admired without one actually liking it. There’s style to spare but not enough to make up for its lack of substance. That’s really a surprise because Ramsay is a director whose work I’ve admired in the past. I’ll be a little more cautious next time out.

You Were Never Really Here is currently playing in Charlotte.
Image: Phoenix & Ekaterina Samsonov in ‘Here’

Questions or comments? Write Adam at [email protected].