You Were Never Really Here. 2018. Directed & Written by Lynne Ramsay. Based on the novella by Jonathan Ames.
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Vinicius Damasceno, Judith Roberts, Frank Pando, John Doman, Alex Manette, & Ekaterina Samsonov.
Why Not Productions/Film4/British Film Institute
Rated R. 89 minutes.
When it was announced Lynne Ramsay would be tackling You Were Never Really Here, I tried envisioning what a movie such as this would look like through the eyes of an auteur like her. Particularly considering we’re in a post-Liam Neeson in Taken era of the movie industry, where 40+ men have had a renaissance in the man-with-a-gun-looking-for-vengeance sub-genre. So many of these types of movies have been pumped out of Hollywood. We’re lucky to have been gifted something outside that system – a more contained and restrained thriller in which the violence itself isn’t the main focus, a character study about cycles of abuse and violence and how they can either be perpetuated or stopped. Not the typical fare you might expect from one of these stories.
You Were Never Really Here is a compelling mix of things tossed together, from the man-out-for-vengeance-style story to the wounded war veteran with PTSD navigating civilian life again to a man-saves-little-girl plot, and more. Joaquin Phoenix’s stoic character Joe, whose existence wavers between being caretaker to his aiding elderly mother and taking on secretive assassination contracts against horrible men, and when he’s tasked with saving a young girl with a politician father he discovers just how horrible those men can be at the core.
The dialogue in the screenplay is minimalist. Phoenix’s performance isn’t in the words, rather in the soft looks he flashes to himself in the mirror, the confused anger in his eyes when dealing with violence, the sad memories rolling across his face when he’s alone. The movie examines how someone who’s come from brutal abuse can either sink or swim in their own violence later. Ramsay’s looking at those who’ve been abused and how they reconcile their abuse. Most importantly, she explores how one man steeped in a violent childhood attempts to shatter the cyclical patterns of violence in his life in a way that can positively affect the world – by ridding it of those who would commit such abuse against the young and innocent, in turn enacting a whole new cycle of horrors.
A fantastic bit of symbolism involves Joe tearing pages out of a book he’s reading. As if he’s literally rewriting the story, changing its narrative. So, how do the abused change their own narratives? Joe seems to have wandered between different forms of control, allowing them to subjugate him, from his family – under which he and his mother suffered abuse from his father – to the military – where he not only witnessed acts of terrible violence in war, he also saw the thoughtless collateral damage where America – the ultimate patriarch – has destabilised various regions. He’s basically sought out all the institutional ways of finding structure, but it’s on his own, taking hitman contracts where he’s able to break free of the institutionalised violence that’s been literally beaten into him.
Naturally, toxic masculinity enters the picture. Joe’s upbringing conditioned him towards a predisposition to violence, and it also hammered toxic ideas about masculine behaviour(s) into his brain. There are several quiet, subtle moments where Joe hears a constant babble in his head – the voice of his father – telling him to stand up straight, and other such commands, implying he’s not ‘man enough’ and that he needs toughening. These moments are a wonderful combination of screenplay and sound work, as it puts the viewer directly in Joe’s perspective. They also show us the eternal struggle through which he suffers, always battling his father’s voice questioning him. Very literally, this is the struggle of any man who’s been abused by their father/father figure, which further ingrains their thought processes with damaging ideas about what it is to be a man. All this reinforces Joe’s true journey, towards finding a way to deal with his own demons.
Male-on-male abuse isn’t merely about toxic masculinity, either. Any abuse perpetrated against the young risks untold amounts and sorts of damage. Something significant about abuse, tying into Joe’s character, is how it emotionally arrests the individual who’s been abused. Not that abuse victims will be immature if they were young while they were abused, but many find, in a sense, they’re stuck at that age, and it can take decades to mentally age.
There are two specific, important instances in You Were Never Really Here which symbolise Joe being a man with a child stuck somewhere deep inside him. The first is when he visits his contact John McCleary (John Doman). John always has jellybeans kicking around. Joe picks one up, remarking on his favourite colour, and he squishes a green jellybean in his fingers. This seems a strange, throwaway shot. Until considering this is the behaviour of a young boy, one who likes to play with his food – surely behaviour he’s never grown out, because he can’t grow. Then, later, after Joe finds an awful situation at home, he taunts one of his would-be assassins by slapping him in the face with his own wet tie. Again, this is the behaviour of a young boy, something he might do while kneeling on a kid’s shoulders in the playground during recess. These brief moments are such effective ways of illustrating the depth of Joe’s abuse without adding more dialogue, more exposition, and it shrouds his character in a layer of mystery that might otherwise be lost.
Another aspect of abuse in general is that concept of the cycles in abuse/violence. Cause and effect play into Joe’s world. In a sense, he becomes a microcosm of problems with violence at large, such as the Americans traipsing all over the world to bomb everyone into democratic elections. We see violence follow Joe, from family to military to back on the streets as a civilian. Violence never happens in a vacuum, something Joe learns abroad in war, as well as back home. The chaos of violence, whether it’s on an individual level or a national one, ensures any action can have an adverse effect, even if it’s done for the sake of good. And maybe this is one of the movie’s biggest points, that regardless if violence can perform an objectively good function it doesn’t necessarily happen without repercussion.
The images of violence Ramsays presents are everyday, banal, almost ordinary situations, just spattered with blood. She shows us the aftermath, though the violence is ever present. Before You Were Never Really Here finishes comes a surreal suicide daydream, as Joe admits the bittersweet, the absurdity, the death and hope of life all at once. In the end, Joe feels failure for Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov) having to resort to brutal and bloody violence herself, as if he couldn’t truly protect her from the cycles of abuse and violence into which he himself was thrust, like an infection that just keeps on spreading. So, when Nina excuses herself from the table at the diner, Joe daydreams of killing himself, right there, and that he’d go unnoticed into oblivion. Instead, Nina comes back, she hasn’t lost the spark of life Joe lost so long ago as a boy, so Joe sees hope, recognising the beautiful day outside. He chooses to go, seeing a way towards redemption in Nina – or happiness, or any kind of forward motion other than blowing his brains out.
Ultimately, You Were Never Really Here tries to imagine the end of pointless cycles of violence. Joe is the epitome of how abused men can rewrite their narrative, change the story, and end these cycles if only the anger, the hurt, the terror is turned someplace constructive. Joe is, for the most part, stuck in a cycle of violence – he fights a war abroad, a war at home, and a war of his mind against himself – and in the face of a violent nature instilled in him post-abuse, he redistributes his own violence to those who deserve it, those who commit violence against the powerless.
Joe cauterises the wound of his abuse by ridding the world of violent men. It may not be a practical solution. All the same, any cyclical violence that doesn’t re-victimise those who are already victims is, in my opinion, a step forward. As is You Were Never Really Here a step forward for a sub-genre that’s typically stuck in a limited amount of scenarios, opening the door for more cerebral studies of the violence men do and more options for how to tell these stories.