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Joaquin Phoenix does some of his best work in ‘You Were Never Really Here’

The actor gives an immersive performance in the NYC-set impressionistic drama, playing a veteran hired to rescue a trafficked girl.

Joaquin Phoenix stars in the NYC-set You Were

Joaquin Phoenix stars in the NYC-set You Were Never Really Here." Photo Credit: Alison Cohen Rosa

‘You Were Never Really Here’

Directed by Lynne Ramsay

Starring Joaquin Phoenix

Rated R

Playing at Angelika Film Center, AMC Loews Lincoln Square

Joaquin Phoenix has found the perfect filmmaker for his talents in Lynne Ramsay, an impressionistic master.

In “You Were Never Really Here,” which plays like “Taken” as it might have been re-imagined by, say, Vincent van Gogh, Ramsay captures the animalistic quality inherent in all of Phoenix’s work with a degree of exacting, vivid attention that makes your heart ache.

The actor plays Joe, a veteran stricken with PTSD who is hired by clients to rescue trafficked girls. The movie follows his efforts to find the daughter of a New York politician, with the plot in its most basic form advancing in a familiar fashion.

Of course, the particulars hardly matter. Set to a haunting, synth-heavy Jonny Greenwood score, beginning with the protagonist asphyxiating himself in a plastic bag and continuing through a series of jarring disconnected images, the movie constitutes an existential cry of despair.

A hush lingers over the movie, which trades in an extreme misery without a promise of escape or release.

Phoenix engages with this part in the sort of all-consuming fashion that’s only possible when an actor buys comprehensively into a director’s vision.

His Joe is deeply, fundamentally anguished, wholly defined by the omnipresent darkness that has overcome him, and the actor sheds any semblance of caution or vanity to go to that harrowing place.

Whether in expansive tracking shots or blood-splattered close-ups, on lonely nighttime drives through rain-swept Manhattan streets or while carrying out vengeance, the focus never wavers.

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