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Movie review: Joaquin Phoenix stars in violent vigilante film ‘You Were Never Really Here’

April 28, 2018 GMT

“You Were Never Really Here” is the story of a violent man who makes a living looking for missing girls and who makes himself a vigilante in the way that he punishes the men responsible.

If this sounds like a crime movie you’ve seen before, and maybe too many times before, you’re right.

Maybe it’s never looked like this brutal film, or left you as confused and empty as this film, but it’s more of the same at its core.

Joaquin Phoenix won the best actor prize at Cannes Film Festival a year ago for his performance, and filmmaker Lynne Ramsay won best screenplay, too, for a film that a lot of people must have liked for its almost copycat resemblance to elements from “Taxi Driver.”

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But the actor’s character is no Travis Bickle, and this film is not that masterpiece.

Phoenix plays Joe, and he’s no regular Joe: He’s a military veteran haunted by his experiences and who now rescues little girls from the sex trade and beats everyone connected with their abuse to death with a ball peen hammer.

There’s also a mystery-thriller element when his world — moving from one bloody mess of a job to the next — is disrupted by a politician’s dirty tricks, setting off his own demons and hallucinations.

Check off Travis Bickle’s list — he’s a veteran, there’s a blonde little girl, he’s an avenging angel determined to clean up the streets, there’s unchecked mental illness — and there’s not much originality here.

There’s Jonny Greenwood’s arresting score of synthesized weirdness, which is appropriately discomforting.

There are moments of real beauty in early scenes showing Joe caring for his elderly mother, displaying a gentleness that betrays his otherwise violent hours.

The painful combination of guilt, loss and mental illness acting out through violence that made Ramsay’s “We Need to Talk About Kevin” such a memorable, haunting and lasting examination is missing here.

What that movie possessed is “Never Really Here,” and the film feels pointless by the conclusion outside of being something for people who enjoy seeing excessive violence on the screen.

But Ramsay’s status as provocateur is unchanged.

Consider her so-called artistic effort reflected in the illness being portrayed as perhaps a series of hallucinations: Hey, how much of this really did happen? Was any of this really there?

Maybe the film will be best enjoyed by those who are hammered.