Violence, paedophilia, kidnap – you were never really here relies on schlock tactics university of kansas track and field

The first time we see joe, the troubled character played by joaquin phoenix in you were never really here, his head is inside a bloodstained plastic bag. He’s using it to calm his breathing after a stressful moment which appears to have involved another person’s violent death. The bag will make numerous reappearances.

Joe is a sizeable, bearded presence, an iraq veteran and former FBI agent, whose bulky form – bulging biceps, slackening torso – phoenix must have crafted through a canny mixture of discipline and self-indulgence. Joe looks as if he might smell: of blood, sweat, sadness and yesterday’s dinner. Still, he has a frail elderly mother (judith roberts) whom he appears to love, to the extent of clearing mouldy cream cheese from her fridge and joining with her in ragged sing-songs.

The pervasive air of unease, though, was such that I did not know if this was a mother-son bond I could rely on, or if something nasty lurked within it.

Nastiness is indeed lurking, but not there. In a series of short flashbacks, presented without context, it appears that joe’s psyche is crammed with remembered horrors from childhood and his former career. Psychological recovery is not helped by his clandestine day job, which involves tracking down underage girls abducted for the sex trade, and effecting a rescue by bumping off their kidnappers with a large hammer.

As this plot unfurled, thinly, my queasy intrigue slowly turned to irritation. The film is drawn from jonathan ames’s novella of the same name, and what might just work in a book becomes less credible on screen. Joe is recruited by an ambitious young politician, senator votto (alex manette), to find and recover discreetly his teenage daughter, nina (ekaterina samsonov), who is held captive by a network of paedophiles. Votto wants the perpetrators hurt, and joe is happy to oblige, but phoenix’s character is walking into a trap which he does not fully understand. By the end of the film, nor did I.

I am wary of films that combine acute violence with a paedophile plot line: there’s often a whiff of prurience, the suggestion that the audience gets a free pass to relish brutality if it is being meted out righteously to appalling people. If one is to participate in watching, however, the writer and director must at least make the circumstances and characters credible. Joe hammers countless wrong-doers, yet rarely seems to encounter complications. Top politicians and the police are complicit in a paedophile network, taking ludicrous risks – including triggering a much wider investigation – to retain a powerful man’s access to a “favourite” girl. Great chunks of plot float away, unexplained, as scenes crop up which may be real, or just part of joe’s tortured imagination.

The director, lynne ramsay – best known for ratcatcher, morvern callar and we need to talk about kevin – has a talent for arresting imagery and the generation of disturbance. We absorb joe’s precarious mental state through a drip-drip of details: the jelly bean he crushes in his hand, the way the city reels and freezes around him as he stops, en route to a violent job, to take a requested photo of a group of fresh-faced japanese tourists. His perspective, blurred by torment and painkillers, is skew-whiff: the only place clarity descends upon him, one feels, is in the moment of killing.

Yet this, and phoenix’s considerable screen presence, are not enough to carry the film on its own: it needs ballast, and elsewhere there is only schlock. The rescued nina, a pale blonde permanently clad in what looks like a nightie, has little to say and almost no perceptible personality, even allowing for the depiction of trauma: she is more of an idea than a person. Extreme violence, or the threat of it, often happens to a candied, retro soundtrack; a man dies on a kitchen floor to the strains of charlene’s “I’ve never been to me”.

These dream-like images and musical ironies have charmed many critics, for whom this film is a fresh twist on taxi driver (it won best screenplay and best actor at cannes). I’m afraid I can’t agree: there was so much here to take on trust, that by the end I had none left.