You Were Never Really Here could refer to the protagonist's mental state, the film's runtime of 90 minutes or writer-director Lynne Ramsay's absence from the big screen.
Since debuting in 1999 with Ratcatcher, she has only produced adaptations of Morven Callar in 2002 and We Need To Talk About Kevin in 2011. That means she has made, on average, a film every 4.5 years. That is workrate that rivals Terrence Malick but thankfully, when she does return, it is not with a film full of wistful shots of pixie girls running through fields of wheat and dull, lifeless narration.
Instead Ramsay has returned with another adaptation of a pulp hard-boiled thriller, and similar to Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive, turned it into a tale of vengeance that is simultaneously one of the most brutal yet tender films of the year.
Phoenix goes full on Joaquin Wick as Joe, a man who it would be fair to say has seen some shit in his time, who works as a hired gun rescuing young girls from harm's way.
Taking the job of returning a Senator's young daughter from a brothel in New York's Midtown, Joe is forced to confront some demons of his own as he wages a one man war on the criminal underworld in this thriller that is stripped back to the bare (broken) bones.
The reasons why Joe is the way that he is have a huge influence on his current career choice but these are only glimpsed sparingly and Ramsay wisely leaves it up to the audience to fill in the blanks and determine the cause of Joe's grief and rage.
If anything casts a long shadow over the film, it is not the spectres from Joe's past but Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver.
It would be difficult to ignore given the plot features a mentally disturbed man rescuing a young girl from the clutches of an abusive child abuser with links to a US senator. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the sequence where Joe initially rescues Nina from a brothel contained in a Manhattan Brownstone.
Careful to avoid direct comparisons, Ramsay orchestrates the rescue by seeing the action from the perspectives of the security cameras on stark black and white monitors. This further detaches the audience from the savage violence dispensed by Phoenix's character.
Whilst the film features flashes of severe barbarity, intensified by Jonny Greenwood's discordent score, from the ugliness of the violence emerges moments of incredible beauty and tenderness.
This is glimpsed early on with Joe's care for his mother, a theme that runs through the film with his care and protection for vulnerable women, but is replicated later on when he shows surprising compassion to a dying man who is frightened of death and lies next to him and sings "I've Never Been To Me" while holding his hand. It is completely unexpected but one of the most moving scenes of the year.
It is just one of many visually arresting images that Ramsay paints with cinematographer Thomas Townend (whose only previous DoP credit was Attack The Block), along with a stunning underwater sequence.
Joe is a tortured anti-hero, at times literally hammering the point home, and his relationship with Nina mirrors that of Travis and Iris, hinting that an escape and redemption might be possible for both of them. Yet like Bickle, it is left open to interpretation as to whether he is the rain that washes the scum of the streets or is ultimately another one of the animals that come out at night.