Never underestimate a film’s trailer when it stars Joaquin Phoenix. No matter how cool it looked it could have never prepared me for actually watching this film, just like you won’t be ready. Lynne Ramsay’s neo-noir crime thriller first premiered in the Official Competition at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival. Despite the fact that it was still a work in progress, it received an 8-minute standing ovation plus awards for Best Screenplay (Shared with The Killing of a Sacred Deer) and Best Actor. Strangely enough, Amazon Studios chose to skip awards season and instead released the film limited on April 6th, 2018. Thus far, aided by strong critical reviews, it has grossed over $3.4 million at the box office, becoming the director’s most commercially successful film to date. After dropping out of Gavin O’Connor’s Jane Got a Gun, Ramsay decided to lay low for a while until she came upon the source material. It is also her first full-length narrative feature in 7 years, her last one being the controversial We Need to Talk About Kevin. Based on the book of the same name by Jonathan Ames, Phoenix stars as Joe, a traumatized Gulf War veteran and former FBI agent now working as a contract killer. One day, New York state senator Albert Votto approaches him and begs Joe to save his teenage daughter Nina from prostitution. While Joe accepts it as a regular job, he uncovers a vast conspiracy web more complex and disturbing than he could have ever imagined. Just by giving that synopsis, the average reader might cast this film aside as yet another derivative crime thriller starring a big name actor. But if anyone has ever watched a film by Lynne Ramsay, then you should know that her films are not so easily pigeonholed. I have been looking forward to this movie ever since it premiered last year. Why Amazon Studios chose to forego a potential awards season run for the lead actor in the fall season and instead release in the spring is still something I’m trying to figure out. But please don’t let the familiar premise and all the “artsy-fartsy” festival buzz deter you; You Were Never Really Here is one of the finest crime thrillers I’ve seen in quite a while. And perhaps that has to do with its subversive take on a harsh topic such as child exploitation. Rather than create a semi-Romantic film that ironically glamorizes the profession of hitmen, Ramsay wisely makes the viewers observers. It’s arguably with this clinical, objective technique that she is able to fully explore the subject matter without fear of exploiting it. Imagine the most European arthouse version of Taken crossed with Martian Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, and that’s about where the tone and style are at. But it never feels self-indulgent or overly obsessed with itself. It is able to find a beautiful balance between empathy for the characters and dispassion in the brutal violence. Joaquin Phoenix is an incredible method actor but, without a doubt, Joe is his best role to date. Imbuing an immense amount of humanity and confusion into the performance, we see just enough of his deeply troubling past to understand his motives and when Votto asks him if really is violent he replies, “I can be.” I will honestly be shocked if he isn’t at least considered for Best Actor this year, even if the film missed out last year. Opposite him is the young Ekaterina Samsonov as Nina Votto, who does a lot without speaking a lot of dialogue. While she sometimes feels more like a symbol than an actual character, hers is truly a breakout role since we can see so much pain and loss of innocence in her small eyes. The two of them are also supported by character actors like Alex Manette as the upset senator wanting his daughter back, John Doman as the hardened handler for Joe’s work, Judith Roberts as Joe’s helpless mother, Alessandro Nivola as the Governor with mysterious ties to the case, and Frank Pandro as a concerned middle man. They’re all great in their own way, but never even come close to Phoenix’s work. As for the filmmaking aspects of it all, Lynne Ramsay shows complete control with her own voice in nearly every department. Shot by underrated British cameraman Thomas Townend, the cinematography captures a seedy griminess to the story rarely found in New York-set cinema. There’s a constant contrast between steady, distant full shots of the scenes and close-ups where the actor might be looking directly into the camera. Not a single frame goes wasted or feels unnecessary, which gives us an opportunity to get to know the characters better without so much exposition. Also, frequent Werner Herzog collaborator knows exactly when to move between these haunting shots. There are a number of smash cuts between either the past, the present, or possible scenarios. This, along with the impressionistic and wholesome sound design, immerse the audience in a narrative that feels fractured, much like Joe’s state of mind. While his work has included both Paul Thomas Anderson and the band Radiohead, multi-instrumentalist Jonny Greenwood has assembled his best work to date for the score. A highly dynamic soundtrack, the man often trades staccato strings and percussion with pieces on a dark-toned synthesizer. His side-job as a computer programmer and infrequent use of diegetic background noises in tracks helps to create a New York City that, much like Daniel Lopatin’s work on Good Time, feels so alien. There’s a beautiful scene near the climax of the film that combines all of the above mentioned techniques with an amazing piece composed by Greenwood. The mix of electric melodies and distant sounds create an emotional connection without trying to manipulate audiences. That being said, I feel like not a lot of people are going to watch this movie. The subject matter, and the manner in which the film deals with it, are so heavy that most mainstream audiences probably won’t even want to try it. Above all, it’s a sad film; these institutions do exist around the world and some of the most powerful men or women condone it. And while some of the characters here are truly despicable, the director rejects the want for them to get a real satisfying closure. Because of this, some may leave the theater wanting more in a bad way. However, I just grew to appreciate her restraint in this approach. You Were Never Really Here is a powerful sucker punch of intense brutality and emotions. One of the absolute best films of the year, I was totally riveted and glued to my seat for all 90 minutes of its runtime. It flies by, which for some may be a relief with its difficult and bold subject matter. This could be the future of action thrillers.