By Victoria Alexander, Film Critic

Captures the nihilistic fever of TAXI DRIVER

Lynne Ramsay, the director and screenwriter of YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE, (based on a 2013 novel by Jonathan Ames) directed one of my favorite films, WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN (2011). Like KEVIN, Ramsay has chosen a story about a psychologically-damaged character, her second sadistic sociopath. To simplify the very complex traits of the stereotypical sociopath, it would be that the sociopath feels no empathy or emotion. The sociopath is unencumbered by feelings such as fear, anxiety, stress, depression, remorse, guilt, caring, and love. Well, that litany of emotions leaves the sociopath who is not handsome or beautiful, or charismatic, in a very lonely place.

According to Harvard psychologist Dr. Martha Stout, author of The Sociopath Next Door, roughly one in 25 Americans is a sociopath.

So the chances of you personally knowing several sociopaths…well, you do the math.

Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) is a veteran with most of the characteristics of a sociopath, except one: he cares about his mother (Judith Roberts). His unnatural lack of fear, added by a ruthless and violent approach to everything, makes his career as a man who meets out private justice as a hitman, an ideal career path. His highly specialized talents affords him the right to look like a homeless man. His specialty – killing people who kidnap and drug young girls to be sex slaves – makes him an unusual anti-hero. And Joe is clearly not doing it for the money. We know this because Joe rarely cleans his only one blood-soaked hoodie. It’s his liaison, John McCleary (John Doman), who makes the big bucks.

Joe has never been arrested so it doesn’t matter if his long, unruly hair and grey beard are left at crime scenes. And his choice of weapon is a huge hammer.

When a state senator’s (Alex Manette) 14-year-old daughter Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), goes missing, he tells Joe he wants the men who took her to suffer. For some reason, the senator knows Nina is not a runaway but caught up in a child-prostitution ring. And this is disturbing. Joe’s zealotry is firmly aimed in a straight direction. It doesn’t matter how many men are guarding the way to the girl – he walks with a resolve that is terrifying. Who knew hurling a hammer with such mighty force can do so much horrible damage.

Joe goes for the face with the hammer every time. He is relentless. He keeps hurling the hammer until the guy is dead. He leaves no witnesses.

It seems that this one young girl might have been kidnapped as a reprisal, since Joe has opened the nest of the child sex ring.

This sex trafficking ring keeps Joe free from small talk, friends, and a life. His only tenderness is the care he gives his aged mother, who also shared in his childhood brutality. In fact, several times he beats guys up and it is not explained why. Why should it be explained? Joe’s history and all the other aspects that would make his avocation understandable, is disregarded by Ramsay. Bravo! Why must everything be laid out for the audience? Everything is never explained in its totality in real life.

Whoever gave their life a blow-by-blow account to anyone? Autobiographies – they are called “memoirs” now – are written merely as an opportunity to get your side out there before anyone else can. Everyone keeps something secret even in a confessional.

What has motivated Joe is the ever-present memories of his childhood and a man – I assume it is his father – carrying a hammer while his crying, terrified mother hides under a table. Joe was an abused child and killing men who sexually abuse young girls is his way of killing his father. The frightened little Joe reenacts the trauma of his childhood, except this time he is the one carrying the hammer.

After he rescues the girl, she is stolen back, and Joe finds out that he is now prey. Perhaps the senator is in some way responsible for his daughter’s kidnapping. Is she even his daughter? Why haven’t the police been called? Whoever is behind the sex trafficking ring, they come after Joe and what they do leaves him no choice but to escalate his fury.

In an unusual scene, Joe holds the hand of a man as he lays dying. Joe is comfortable with death. He knows it well. He knows the loneness of death. He’s made the commitment: He’s in partnership with death.

Phoenix becomes the role and lets his body express Joe’s fleshy musclearity. He has the body needed to kill strong men with only a hammer. Phoenix  seems to be the only actor capable for this part. He knows he can relate hidden things about the character through silence, slow movements and muted expressions. You can see his character thinking.

Ramsey once again proves she is a very gifted filmmaker. Unfairly, too much time has passed since her last film.

YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE is a thriller that you will want to see twice – it will stay with you. It is a triumph for Ramsey and Phoenix. It has the gritty, wet and dank New York City quality that has nearly been forgotten by filmmakers. It  follows the path etched out long ago by TAXI DRIVER.

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