Joaquin Phoenix stumbles through every scene in Lynne Ramsay’s “You Were Never Really Here” as if he overslept, dashed out of bed, and accidentally rushed into the abandoned set of a film noir, then forgot what he was supposed to do. The results are thrilling and frustrating, often within the constraints of a single scene. It’s an enticing challenge for the writer-director to develop a stylish mood piece out this flimsy material, adapted from a Jonathan Ames novella as a series of textured moments. The movie is an elegant homage to a mold of scrappy detective stories that often collapses into a concise pileup of stylish possibilities.
That’s nothing new for the British director, whose 2002 feature “Morvern Callar” showed a penchant for grim genre exercises that treasured mood over plot and mysteries over solutions; her 2011 thriller “We Need to Talk About Kevin” suggested the prospects for expanding beyond those elements for a dark family drama firmly rooted in real life.
But Ramsay is a director of textures, and with “You Were Never Really Here” she shows a blatant resistance to plot itself. Rushed to the finish line for the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, where it arrived mere days after emerging from the editing room, the movie is a compelling hodgepodge in search of an elusive bigger picture. At once exuberant and subdued, the movie reflects a filmmaker on a mission for tantalizing moments and evocative sequences, which contort and expand with a fresh energy that falls short of its potential but never stops chasing it.
At its core, “You Were Never Really Here” channels the intrigue of shaggy-dog detective stories, from the loopy plotting of “The Maltese Falcon” to the scrappy, ramshackle post-modern investigative romps like “The Long Goodbye,” sketching out the wandering misadventures of a hired gun lost in the pathways of an unfinished assignment; at the same time, he’s a disgruntled loner whose plight veers closer to Travis Bickle sociopath than investigative hero, but the movie forces viewers to pick through the clues to his true psychology.
Joaquin Phoenix sags into the role of deadpan New Yorker Joe, a bearded introvert who mutters his way through an uninspired life that seems to bore him even when he’s forced into survival mode. (It’s the kind of spacey performance that Phoenix can do with one eye open.) A handful of early scenes sketch out Joe’s routine caring for his aging mother (Judith Roberts) and lazily working his way through violent assignments. Hired by a local senator (Alessandro Nivola) to rescue his pre-teen daughter Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov) from apparent sex slavery, Joe stumbles his way through half-formed leads and violent hotel showdowns — but his biggest enemy is his own apparent death wish.
From an early moment that finds Joe attempting to strangle himself with a plastic bag, it’s clear that he harbors dark resentments that call into question just how much he cares about anything. Snippets of childhood flashbacks imply that he’s long faced morbid demons, though these fleeting tidbits also highlight the extent to which the movie seems as unfinished as Joe’s priorities. What exactly happened to create such a downbeat, pitiful creature battling his way through a disquieting world? “You Were Never Really Here” doesn’t have an answer more effective than its title, but Ramsay relishes the pileup of mysteries it entails.
With an eerie, insinuative score by Jonny Greenwood undulating beneath each scene, the movie relates much of its tone through Phoenix’s expressionless face, his knotty beard, and frozen eyes reflecting a man who has retreated from the world. It’s a gorgeous, fascinating atmospheric experience, so thick with possibilities that for much of the running time Ramsay seems to content to simply let the mood dominate. The scrappier B-side to Phoenix’s “Long Goodbye” riff in “Inherent Vice,” the performance embodies the movie as a whole — he’s entrancing, inscrutable, and yet not without some glimmers of soul.
Ultimately, Joe finds himself engulfed in a pileup of genre pastiche — from a fast-paced hotel-room combat with corrupt cops to disquieting shootouts, he’s relentless in his crusade to find justice for the kidnapped child in a bleak world, for reasons that come across as part of a spiritual redemption. His path is exceedingly unpredictable, filled with jarring physical showdowns balanced by quieter exchanges, suggesting a narrative at war with itself. A dark lyricism hovers over much of the movie, as well as the sense that Ramsay can’t figure out quite what she wants to do with it. Like Joe himself, “You Were Never Really Here” drifts through various possibilities with a ghostly pallor, never quite settling on a fully realized version of a cinematic elegy.
There’s much to appreciate about the effort. A perfectionist at odds with her own talent, Ramsay has apparently snipped and reoriented the material to make Joe’s quest more journey than destination. In one memorable showdown with an anonymous hitman, Joe lies down next to the injured man in the kitchen as a pop song plays on the radio, and the mood shifts from brutal interrogation session to genial bonding as they jointly murmur their way through the lyrics while the killer bleeds out. It’s an absurd moment of wry humor, and it implies that Joe’s somber existence is all one desperate call for the companionship that’s eluded him his whole life. The haunting beauty of such scenes often trumps the impression of a much richer work struggling to find its form.
If “You Were Never Really Here” remains in the concise Cannes version, it shows a more restrained, scattershot artist than the more traditional, narrative-bound filmmaker visible in her other works. Still, it doesn’t retreat from the powers visible there; it’s a mesmerizing illustration of her ability to treasure small gestures and whispered exchanges over exposition to construct a tapestry of alternately gripping and melancholic emotions. While blatantly unfinished, it may be suited to remain in that form — fragmented and imprecise in much the same way as its baffled, alienated character.
“You Were Never Really Here” premiered at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival. Amazon will release it later this year.