Written by: Lynne Ramsay (screenplay), Jonathan Ames (novel)
Directed by: Lynne Ramsay
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Judith Roberts, and Ekaterina Samsonov
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“McCleary said you were brutal."
"I can be."
"I can be."
You Were Never Really Here is an exploration of many things, but mostly it’s about a haunting. Perhaps not in the conventional horror sense, mind you, but it’s unmistakably preoccupied with the nonlinear nature of trauma: the way some must carry it with them like a millstone, unable to shake it because it’s always been there and will forever remain. Pain never truly heals but instead becomes woven into the fabric of their everyday lives, lingering in the corners of the brain before erupting. With her adaptation of Jonathan Ames’s novella, Lynne Ramsay captures the fragile experience of a man who hasn’t learned to cope with his trauma so much as he’s barely harnessed it, deploying it as the vague guiding force in an aimless life marked by suffering, regret, and violence.
Much of Joe’s (Joaquin Phoenix) life feels something like muscle memory: we’re introduced to him suffocating himself in bed with plastic wrap, a ritual we eventually discover is a routine dating back to a fractured childhood. Somehow, we don’t need to know that immediately to gather its ritualistic nature, as we soon watch him shamble through the motions of his increasingly cryptic night. He’s apparently just committed some unseen violent act that leads to him being randomly assaulted in the streets, an attack he shakes off with a near disinterest that suggests he’s been here before.
Despite the obvious savagery in his life, he returns home without fanfare to care for his mother (Judith Roberts), who’s just been spooked by watching Psycho on TV. There is something like love here, but only in a distant sense of a faint echo, as flashbacks will soon reveal the two are mostly bonded by their shared abuse at the hands of Joe’s father. As will be the case throughout the film, the particulars here aren’t obvious—only the vague yet potent suggestion that these two broken people have found something like solace in each other.
Joe also seeks solace in his work, which begins to come into focus as we trudges through more motions: he makes cryptic phone calls to set meetings with various handlers, taking money in exchange for a specific service. When girls go missing—either via running away or abduction—Joe is the one hired to find them. His demeanor suggests that it’s just that: a job, one that he robotically carries out with no inkling of passion. Far from some higher calling, it just feels like the natural extension of a life of violence, as Joe’s troubled childhood yielded to horrific wartime experiences. Violence must feel like the dull ache of a phantom limb, a persistent pain that can never heal. His latest assignment, however, is set to challenge him on an existential level: when a senator’s daughter (Ekaterina Samsonov) goes missing, he uncovers a vast, horrific conspiracy that awakens something like a purpose within him, even as it comes at the cost of everything he knows.
Much of You Were Never Really Here is suggested, the script’s minimal dialogue providing just enough explicit information. What we know of Joe is largely sketched in staccato flashbacks that recur throughout the film, providing the audience a glimpse into his boyhood days, where he’d cower in his room, seeking shelter from his abusive father. Later memories of witnessing wartime atrocities arrive, practically detonating on his brain like a grenade, with the fragmented memories embedded in him like shrapnel. Ramsay doesn’t exactly thread a narrative through these memories; rather, she seeks to reveal the impressionistic manner in which Joe’s trauma forever lingers, haunting him in even the most innocuous moments, such as when a group of tourists simply asks him to take their picture on the street. Trauma doesn’t work in a straight line, or can it be tidily accounted for within the confines of a story that neatly explains who Joe is. There’s a sense that Joe himself couldn’t adequately explain his own story, particularly given how aloof and disconnected he is.
Phoenix is extraordinary here as he chisels out something of a misshapen character in Joe, a man whose dead, empty eyes betray any sense that he’s acting out of justice at all. With little dialogue at his disposal, Phoenix realizes Joe as a schlubby enigma whose swollen, slabby physique creates the immediate impression of a man carrying some burden. Despite the physical nature of his work, Joe has let himself go, his wild, unkempt beard sprawling out beneath a face that’s usually shrouded by a baseball cap. His likewise ragged attire reinforces the notion that this is a man who simply doesn’t give a fuck, and Phoenix’s largely mechanical turn only heightens that impression.
It’s brilliant, minimalist work that sees the actor internalizing so much implied pain and suffering before he’s required to break down more outwardly, effectively subverting the urban vigilante trope in the process. Where some his more famous cinematic predecessors—like De Niro’s Travis Bickle—carry themselves with a sort of assured demeanor, Phoenix remains vulnerable and broken throughout You Were Never Really Here. This is not the sort of film that works towards moments of definitive crisis and epiphany: just as trauma works refuses to work in a straight line, so does redemption and grace. You might find yourself waiting for a climactic moment that unlocks everything—the exact nature of Joe’s trauma or the motivations guiding his grisly work—but Ramsay remains aloof here, perhaps insisting that there is no accounting for someone this broken.
Nor is there a magic bullet to cure what ails him, a notion that’s quite literalized in Ramsay’s treatment of violence. With the pointed exception of the violence he inflicts upon himself (both real and imagined), Joe’s savagery is largely muted by Ramsay’s cold, detached lens. Most of Joe’s gruesome handiwork is captured in mirrors or security cam footage, emphasizing the detachment he must feel from it: violence here isn’t a coping mechanism but a way of life for Joe, his flabby, scarred body having been reduced to a blunt force instrument. One might argue that it’s at least an instrument for justice, as Joe feels like a hammer of god, smiting pedophilic vermin and crooked politicians; it seems, doubtful, however that Joe himself feels this way, at least until his latest job goes haywire, forcing him to perhaps reconsider his chances at attaining some measure of blood-soaked salvation.
This is the most crucial conflict of You Were Never Really Here, a film that similarly subverts the cathartic nature of violence in these vigilante pictures, which often insist on weaving grace through brutality. A scene in which Joe launches an assault on a high-class brothel seems like it would be downright rousing in lesser hands, as the shell-shocked vet moves through the compound almost unconsciously while the incongruous chords and lyrics to doo-wop anthem “Angel Baby” fade in and out. In Ramsay’s hands, however, it’s another stark reminder of Joe’s seemingly futile quest for meaning—there is only the job here, so the savagery is reduced to distanced, unflinching security camera footage, rightfully diminishing the raucous, stirring impulses usually associated with this genre. If there is salvation to be found, it might be in the act of actually saving another soul, as the tricky resolution here further subverts genre expectations by denying Joe his ultimate act of redemptive—or at least vengeful—violence, leading to a wry, almost denouement that leaves audiences questioning if Joe can ever just go out and enjoy the beautiful day waiting for him.
Ramsay’s not interested in providing answers, though, and is content to allow You Were Never Here to linger in the ether. Coolly detached and impeccably crafted, it mirrors its protagonist’s muted, simmering fury, only bursting to life for a few moments of incongruous sublimity. It’s in these fleeting, serene moments that Joe finds something approaching a higher calling amidst the unruly din that typically scores his life, as Ramsay often unleashes a discordant soundscape, full of chatter, abnormally loud ambient noise, and Johnny Greenwood’s jangly, pulsing electronic score to further reflect Joe’s inner turmoil. Occasionally, however, there are moments of almost surreal peace, unfolding in surprising spaces—like the bottom of a pond and a cozy diner—that suggest the possibility for recovery. In a film that just feels enigmatic and mysterious, that unresolved conflict remains the most notable missing piece, even when it looks like Joe has saved his soul from utter oblivion.
I don’t mean to mislead anyone into believing You Were Never Really Here is a conventional horror film by reviewing it here: at best it’s horror adjacent, much like Ramsay’s previous effort, We Need to Talk about Kevin. However, there’s certainly a case to be made that the final moments here—in which Ramsay implies that our moments of stirring hope can butt up against our darkest moments of self-destructive despair—inspire a deeply unnerving sense of existential horror. Can we ever truly overcome trauma, or are we forced to forever drag it along with us and become a forgotten footnote in the cacophony of everyday life?
You Were Never Really Here is currently available on DVD and Blu-ray from Lionsgate Home Entertainment.
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