Lynne Ramsay’s films always put me on the defensive, and I mean this in the physical sense. During the entirety of her new and anxiously paced gem, You Were Never Really Here, I sat hunched over with my shoulders grazing my earlobes and my jacket bunched up in my arms. I did not relax until the credits began to roll, and even then I was worried I would have to flinch.
You Were Never Really Here is based on the novel by Jonathan Ames and yes, he is the very same Ames who created the TV comedies Bored to Death and Blunt Talk. I am just as confused as you are. It is the story of Joe who is played by Joaquin Phoenix in his finest on screen performance. This is really saying something, given the depth and breadth of Phoenix’s film performances over the years. While Ramsay’s film tells a story about Joe, Joe himself is the story we experience. Joe’s body is thick with muscle, plastered in scars, and his face and neck are wrapped in an unkempt beard. Phoenix is physically larger in this role than he has been in any film and he lumbers around like someone who is so heavy with despair he can barely breathe.
It is evident almost immediately that Joe lives with severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. But, Ramsay does with this film what she did with We Need To Talk About Kevin — she makes the film experience itself the cinematic incarnation of the main character’s thoughts and feelings. Joe is a self-described “hired gun” who tenderly cares for his ailing mother (Eraserhead’s Judith Roberts) while brutally murdering wealthy pedophiles he is paid to kill. He spends his mornings putting plastic bags over his head, pushing sharp knives down his throat, and bending down in front of moving trains. We know he has suicidal ideation, but we aren’t sure if he is just pushing himself as close to the line as possible, or if he’s actually trying to take his own life and failing. A Senator’s underage daughter has been kidnapped and sold into sex slavery at a seedy hotel downtown. Joe has been hired to bring her back. What he thinks is a clear-cut case of kill and rescue turns out to be much more complicated.
As a person living with a PTSD diagnosis, I felt completely validated by this film, not by Joe’s brutal violent acts and murder, but by his paralyzing bouts of anxiety and depression. Guided by Jonny Greenwood’s perfectly eerie soundtrack, the film suddenly lurches and explodes in ways that embody a trauma “trigger” better than any other art I have seen. Greenwood, who is having quite a successful year, is perfectly matched with Ramsay’s filmmaking style.
Clearly inspired, in parts, by Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men, and von Trier’s Antichrist some may see Ramsay’s film and think they are seeing another dark film about disturbed white male violence. Ramsay, however, does something a friend of mine pointed out is a hell of a lot more subversive. In a scene that powerfully and tenderly shatters the masculine myth, Joe discovers a serious disappointment that derails his entire mission and, instead of lashing out in violent anger like Kylo Ren, Charles Bronson, or Travis Bickle, Joe buries his face in his hands and sobs. He doesn’t swear and call out. He whimpers like a small boy begging to be held by a loving parent and he then begins to reflect on his past and what brought him to this point.
You Were Never Really Here is one of the most important American films ever made and I am so grateful it was written and directed by a woman. Only Ramsay’s feminine gaze could have brought Joe to a place of spiritual nourishment, even in the midst of his grisly violence and deep hurt. This is not to say that Ramsay doesn’t know how to shoot a graphically violent murder scene. But it’s not the violence that Ramsay directs us to focus on, it’s the broken hearts beneath the violence. A violent man is never just a violent man much like, as in We Need To Talk About Kevin, the mother of a school shooter is never just a neglectful, bad parent. It may be cliché, but as we say in the chaplain field, hurt people hurt people, and in Joe’s case, hurt people REALLY hurt people.