Despite an almost agonizingly slow start which takes up the first half hour of this 90min affair, the pace gradually picks up for the movie to turn into an altogether more brutal beast. Still, the emphasis of this ‘thriller’ firmly lies in Joaquin Phoenix’ haunting performance and less in its plot.

Meet Joe (J. Phoenix), a ‘hired gun’ and deeply traumatised Golf War veteran still reeling from his past experiences… so much so that he has a habit of wrapping his head in plastic sheets until he almost reaches the state of suffocation while unsettling flashbacks tell of harrowing scenes that have left him with an obvious death wish thanks to images he simply cannot shake off. This deeply disturbed individual and former FBI agent is called from Cincinnati, where he just finished a ‘job’ (Joe specialises in saving young girls from sex traffickers), to New York for his next assignment. Although Joe only ever works for private clientele the jobs are provided by his supervisor (John Doman) – in this case the latest job concerns Senator Votto (Alex Manette) whose runaway teenage daughter Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov) has disappeared – another victim of a human traffic ring. With the words “I want you to hurt them” Senator Votto gives Joe carte blanche to proceed as he sees fit and that’s precisely what he does, though he weapons of choice don’t include the usual array of guns but a kit filled with DIY tools, most prominently a ball-peen hammer which promises a considerably more agonizing death than a mere shotgun wound!

Now that Joe’s psychological state of mind and the set up is established, the film’s remaining hour concerns itself with him locating Nina while bringing the perpetrators ‘to justice’ though when things don’t go according to plan the hunter quickly becomes the hunted – with fatal consequences for Joe’s mother, a dementia-ridden old woman who provides the only real human interaction in Joe’s troubled existence.

YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE makes for extremely uncomfortable viewing thanks to Phoenix’ unforgettable performance and an editing job which intersperses the action with flashbacks (almost too many) before other sequences depict Joe’s increasingly unsettled state of mind – so much so that at times the film runs danger of forgetting that this is meant to be a disturbing tale of a corrupt underworld… instead it pans out to be a disturbing tale of a disturbed individual.
The violence is swift and nothing short of shockingly brutal and you will never look the same way at a hammer again! To further emphasize the bleak and violent world in which Joe moves, the most unsettling scenes are juxtaposed by cheese-dripping 70’s disco music including Charlene’s ‘I’ve never been to me’ – all the more poignant given the overall context of the plot.

If gung-ho action and a superhero is what you’re after then you are advised to stay well clear of director Lynne Ramsey’s award-winning tale of crime and retribution though really it’s worth just watching it for Phoenix’ performance alone!