Movie review: 'You Were Never Really Here' is good, maybe great, and hard to like
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Joaquin Phoenix plays an angsty assassin in "You Were Never Really Here." MUST CREDIT: Alison Cohen Rosa, Amazon Studios

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Joaquin Phoenix assumes a hooded, bearlike presence in "You Were Never Really Here," a disquieting urban thriller directed by Lynne Ramsay. As Joe, a taciturn hit man whose specialty is rescuing young women who have been abducted and forced into sex trafficking, Phoenix is a lurking bundle of anxieties and retributive obsession.

In "You Were Never Really Here," adapted from a 2013 novel by Jonathan Ames, Ramsay makes bold, counterintuitive choices as a director, offering quiet interludes and quick, shardlike flashbacks by way of characterization.

That approach dispenses with the usual windy expository passages that bog down so many movies, trusting the audience to piece together the broken fragments of Joe's past life, which include parental abuse, hitches in Afghanistan and the FBI, and his recent career as an assassin with a higher purpose. The result is a drama that conveys an exceptionally vivid sense of impending tension and dread.

"You Were Never Really Here" breaks cinematic storytelling down to its fundamentals: It's a study in sound, image and performance in which brutal violence is displayed obliquely (in jumpy, grainy surveillance footage in one scene; reflected in a shattered mirror in another) and in which Jonny Greenwood's purposefully oppressive musical score often fights with Phoenix's unintelligible dialogue, as well as the assaultive sound effects of modern life.

Ramsay provides generous dashes of past references for cinephiles: In addition to obvious nods to Scorsese and Hitchcock, it's possible to detect glancing homages to Sergei Eisenstein and John Frankenheimer.

Playing protagonist and muse, Phoenix offers his bulked-out body as yet another canvas for clues to Joe's clearly anguished past. The austerely pulled-back hair, the tattoos and prodigious scars, the private rites and rituals and bouts of explosive violence with a ball peen hammer all suggest a primal unhealed wound and - when Joe is assigned to save Nina, the young daughter of a powerful New York politician - ultimate salvation.

As beautiful and compelling as Ramsay's filmmaking and Phoenix's central performance are, the degree to which viewers will buy "You Were Never Really Here" depends on the degree to which they accept yet another display of febrile vigilante brutality motivated by sexual violence perpetrated against young girls.

"You Were Never Really Here" is a good film, maybe even a great one. But I can't honestly say I liked it.

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