PLOT A hit man is hired to find a missing girl.
CAST Joaquin Phoenix, Ekaterina Samsonov, Alessandro Nivola
RATED R (violence, language)
PLAYING AT Manhasset Cinemas and Cinema Arts Centre in Huntington.
BOTTOM LINE A brutishly good Phoenix gets lost in this overly arty, self-conscious noir.
In Lynne Ramsay’s “You Were Never Really Here,” Joaquin Phoenix plays Joe, a hulking mess of a hit man. Abused as a child, traumatized as a soldier during the Gulf War, Joe now makes a living killing people because, we suspect, it takes his mind off killing himself. One day he accepts an assignment to find Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), the missing daughter of a prominent New York politician. It’s a job that will hit Joe a little too close to home.
“You Were Never Really Here” has the makings of a quintessential neo-noir, with a terse script (by Ramsay) based on a novella by Jonathan Ames. Its semipsychotic protagonist serves as a good vehicle for Phoenix, who can brood and simmer like nobody’s business. There’s also pent-up demand for a new Ramsay film; her previous feature, “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” about the making of a school shooter, came out in 2011.
That film, starring Tilda Swinton and Ezra Miller as an ill-fated mother and child, was a chilling piece of work. “You Were Never Really Here,” on the other hand, feels frozen stiff. It’s highly stylized, full of off-screen murder and on-screen wretchedness meant to convey a worldview as brutal as the hammer Joe carries with him (a nice touch).
Like some of Nicolas Winding Refn’s most self-conscious work (“Drive,” “The Neon Demon”), though, Ramsay’s movie seems less about conveying meaning than about striking artful poses.
The sordid storyline — Nina has become chattel for pedophiles — recalls Paul Schrader’s creepoid classic “Hardcore” (1979), which starred George C. Scott as a dad searching for his daughter in the porn industry. That film’s underbelly was vividly greasy; the one we see here is only vaguely rendered. Alessandro Nivola plays a central villain, but he vanishes mere seconds after he appears. It’s as if the movie loves the idea of man’s inhumanity, etc., but doesn’t want to spend time showing it.
The film culminates with a scene in a diner that comes off as both surreal and sarcastic — a non sequitur if ever there was one. Meanwhile, the character Phoenix has clearly worked hard to create, a menacing murderer with a weakening psyche, never manages to come to life. He’s nearly the only thing that feels real in this world of artifice.