Lynne Ramsay’s 2018 film You Were Never Really Here begins with a sigh — or perhaps more of a gasp. We’ve cut from a black screen to an image of Joaquin Phoenix’s character Joe, his head wrapped in a plastic bag, slowly breathing in and out. With each exhalation the bag inflates, allowing space, breathing room; upon inhalation, the bag envelopes itself around him, molding to each crevice and facial contour, the claustrophobic tightness of the shot placing us directly in Joe’s suffocating headspace. We then cut to a montage of close-ups: a photograph of a young girl set aflame; a smoke detector uncovered; various small belongings, inferred to have belonged to the girl, sorted and discarded; and perhaps most ominously, a ball-peen hammer, spattered crimson, wiped clean. Joe is not, in fact, a criminal — at least, not in the sense immediately assumed — but from this restrained amalgamation of imagery, one could be defended for deducing otherwise. We move to a wider shot — a hotel hallway, Joe’s room door closed, a sign suspended from the handle: “Do Not Disturb”. But after only a minute in Ramsay’s film, we know it’s far too late for that. Joe is plenty disturbed already.
The name “Joe” brings to mind a certain Biblical character of the same name: Joseph; the Dreamer, the man who predicted Egypt’s approaching famine through visions granted to him by God. Phoenix’s Joe is afflicted similarly, haunted by recurring nightmares that appear frequently and with little discrimination for the time of day or night. Trauma infests his past and manifests in his present, pushing him to seek refuge in an occupation of violent catharsis. Joe works as a hitman, we soon learn, specializing in the rescue of young victims from human traffickers. His newest assignment comes to him from senator Albert Votto (Alex Manette), a widower who’s received an anonymous tip detailing the location of his runaway daughter Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov). The address turns out to be a stylish townhouse, a hub for traffickers, and Joe is called to do his work. “They told me you were brutal,” Votto apprises Joe questioningly. “I can be,” he replies, crushing a jelly bean between his fingers.
The thing is, You Were Never Really Here is in fact brutal, but not in terms of depicted violence. Ramsay shoots the main fight sequence through a series of grainy security cameras, positioned so that the bloody aftermath is all that we can make out. According to Ramsay herself, this was a decision based primarily on budget constraints, but nevertheless it pays off stylistically; the fragmented aura of this scene fits perfectly with the film’s modus operandi. In this regard, You Were Never Really Here is an indisputable masterclass, its superficial elements equating to nothing less than technical wizardry. At base level, You Were Never Really Here is a film about traumas of all wonderful varieties: emotional trauma, psychological trauma, blunt-force trauma. It’s consistent, then, that the viewing experience feels not unlike a supremely competent artistic bludgeoning.
Lest this description infer a criticism on my part, rest assured that this is not the case. It’s all too common for a film’s superficial attributes to excel solely on the basis of cosmetic appearance; a film, for example, may be shot and lit in a visually pleasing manner, edited in an accessible and easy to follow method, and contain a score that queues the audience to the imminence of an emotional provocation. This is not inherently the wrong route, merely the easy one, but this variation in artistic depth (aside from leaving many of those assembly-line pictures at the status of predictably fun and reliably uneventful) renders the films that do strive for excellence all the more admirable. You Were Never Really Here is the rare film whose technical qualities contribute more than mere aesthetic appeal, functioning in a symbiotic synergy of visceral manipulation to place the viewer directly into Joe’s unstable headspace. Perhaps most notable among these traits is Jonny Greenwood’s score, a pitch-perfect high note in a career literally full of them. This is a musical marvel, oscillating between the ominous and the eerie, the relaxing and the pulse-pounding, with an unsettling lack of predictability that perfectly mirrors the volatile nature of Joe’s psyche.
Both the condition of our main protagonist and the superficial plot beats of the film mimic a rather well-known picture: Paul Schrader’s Taxi Driver. Both films follow mentally unstable male figures, focusing on their attempts to rescue young women from abuse and exploitation that stem from the influence, directly or otherwise, of corrupt politicians. Major differences, however, are present between the two main characters. One concerns the timeline of the characters’ psychological deterioration; while “God’s lonely man” of Taxi Driver undergoes a visible descent into violent paranoia and aggression, Joe is in that state already at Never Really Here’s commencement. Another incongruity between the two men lies in their motivations: while Bickle wants to believe in something greater than himself, to die for a cause worthy of sacrificial martyrdom, Joe wants something simpler, albeit less noble: he wants merely to die.
Or is he dead already? This thought occurred to me after I had finished the film, and while I doubt this was the concept foremost on Ramsay’s mind, it’s an intriguing one nonetheless. Ramsay treats her protagonist almost as a phantom: a ghostly figure who drifts through city streets embodying the title of his story. Interestingly enough, when viewed from the perspective of the film’s antagonists, You Were Never Really Here almost assumes the aura of a classic ghost story: the tale of a violent spectre who appears out of nowhere and vanishes in the wake of his gruesome havoc. This idea is illustrated beautifully in a seemingly insignificant touch: a wide angle of Joe walking down a city sidewalk. As he nears the edge of the frame, a car passes in front of him, obscuring our view for a split second. When the vehicle flashes by, Joe is gone. We blink, do a double take. Was he ever really there?
To be clear, I’m not talking of a literal, Shyamalan-esque “dead the whole time” gimmick, more of a spiritual hollowness connecting to the film’s larger theme of terrible isolation and detachment. Joe, it seems, is constantly toying with the idea of self-harm or even suicide; we get several unsettlingly matter-of-fact sequences wherein Joe teeters on the brink of physically mutilating himself, whether it’s by dangling a knife over his eye, dropping one to the floor and moving his foot just in time, or wrapping his head in a plastic bag. This is how Ramsay opens the door for Nina, a character who redirects You Were Never Really Here into somewhat of a deconstruction on the typical action hero. Throughout most of its runtime, the film follows in the basic footsteps of genre pictures like Taken (although far more proficient in every aspect). The character of Nina, however, allows for an interesting reversal of expected roles. She becomes, in the end, Joe’s savior, by bringing him out of the darkest depths of his troubled soul.
The film’s final scene (reminiscent in retrospect of a similarly miraculous Dreyer conclusion) offers a beautiful symbolic image of Nina’s redemptive and healing power over her rescuer. She and Joe sit together in a diner, and Nina leaves the table for a moment. As she departs, Joe pulls out a gun, and after a moment of terrible deliberation, shoots himself and sprawls across the table. None of the surrounding customers react, however, and we realize the act was merely a vision inside Joe’s mind. Nina returns to a bloodless table, Joe slumped and defeated. She places a hand on his head and commands, “Joe, wake up.” He lifts up his face, and it’s as if Nina has raised him from the dead, saved him from the tortured agony of himself. It’s a beacon of light at the end of the year’s bleakest tunnel, illuminating the dark walls behind it in a glow of retrospective hope.