Lynne Ramsay’s fourth feature film, You Were Never Really Here (2018), is one of the best films about violence I’ve ever seen. If you’ve ever – you know – just seen a fucking movie, you’ll likely understand just how significant that claim is. Truffaut could tell you there’s no such thing as an anti-war film, and many filmmakers and scholars would agree that most films are about violence in one form or another, but rarely are they so openly about the consequences of that violence. You Were Never Really Here follows respectfully in the footsteps of such icons as Taxi Driver (1976), Oldboy (2003), Breathless (1960), Leon: The Professional (1994), The Hurt Locker (2008), John Wick (2014), Death Wish (1974), Drive (2011), and countless others. It just might be better than most of them.
I prepared for You Were Never Really Here by watching Ramsay’s second feature, Morvern Callar (2002), a BBC film about a young woman who comes home to find that her boyfriend has slit his wrists and left behind his completed manuscript for posthumous publication. Much like Morvern, You Were Never Really Here enfolds layers upon layers of insoluble theming and internal character conflict within an easily-digestible, pithy plot. It’s the type of one-sentence-summary film that snatches up viewers scrubbing through late-night cable lineups: “A former special forces operative turned clandestine fixer agrees to track down the kidnapped daughter of a powerful Senator and gets embroiled in a complex web of treachery and corruption.” Sounds like run-of-the-mill JCVD schlock on paper, but in execution, You Were Never Really Here is a deeply considerate and affecting exploration of cyclical male violence; how it is both informed by and harmful to the lives of women, and how it makes men into monsters.
Speaking of monsters, when Death comes for us he will appear as a thick-shouldered, bearded Joaquin Phoenix in boot-cut jeans and a Carhartt zip-up. I cannot understate the terror Joaquin inspires in this film. The only other cinematic instance I can think of that even approaches his level of raw brutality is Tom Hardy’s unhinged portrayal of real-life British prisoner ‘Charlie Bronson’ in Refn’s Bronson (2008), another great look at how male violence profligates in unregulated systems of societal aggression. Even Hardy, however, exhibits a physical vulnerability to the goons and opps who come for him. Joaquin is pure Force. The nerve-wracking flashbacks unraveling Joaquin’s PTSD and his white-knuckled attempts at suicide-by-asphyxiation are more than just well-crafted elements of his character. His greatest enemy can only be himself because it’s simply impossible to believe anyone else can stop him. This is deft commentary on the masochism of male violence, in which destructive forces shaped by male aggression are victim only to their own self-hatred.
You Were Never Really Here approaches violence from a consequential perspective by exploring the aftermath of violent acts even as it shows the acts themselves. In one unforgettable scene, Joaquin stalks through an underage brothel with a hammer, DeNiro’s Travis Bickle cum Gosling’s Driver, utterly obliterating goons with short bursts of violence. The entire scene is filmed as if by CCTV, but it’s more than just the grainy black-and-white video styling; it’s as if the scene is being played back over the CCTV cameras, complete with all the timed cuts from camera-to-camera in the dead silence of video-only. The effect is deeply unnerving, as oftentimes the automated cuts will whisk us away from the violence mid-swing to examine an empty hallway. When the footage cuts to yet another camera, we’ll see Joaquin stalking through a room, but the next cut will take us back to the corpse of his first victim in a stairwell. It is in this jagged dance that the film explores the nihilism of violence. A gaudy crooner plays low over the footage of Joaquin’s razor-eyed Angel of Death bludgeoning his way through a sanctum of male abuse, in moments both unseen and unglorified. Lynne’s decision to consistently withhold the actual act of violence from the glorifying gaze of the camera works on many levels: it deconstructs the ‘prestige’ action movie trope of condemnation-by-glorification, it steadily ramps up the tension, it keeps the focus on character instead of action… it’s masterfully done.
The ugliness of You Were Never Really Here thankfully never extends to Thomas Townend’s principal cinematography, which wanders through the neon apathy of modern New York City in direct contrast to the way Taxi Driver eagerly laps up grimy ‘70s excess. Some of the shots are art-house beautiful, others are auteur-confident, but all focus on Joe (Phoenix)’s relationship to the world. Framing him within and against the breadth of the city that uses him for his abilities and exiles him for his baggage contextualizes the source and depth of his violence. Contrasting these scenes of peripatetic dissonance with claustrophobic flashbacks to Joe’s youth, wherein he is repeatedly abused by his father and listens to his mother suffering the same, maintains an underlying tension throughout the film, during which anything can snap at any time. The droning synth score by Jonny Greenwood evokes last year’s similarly unnerving Good Time (2017), but with less insistence, never unwilling to step aside for the bouncy country-pop soundtrack that infuses the film with absurd levity.
You Were Never Really Here subverts the expectations of its overplayed genre at every turn. Moments of revenge, normally vehicles for bloody catharsis a la John Wick blowing Theon Greyjoy’s head off in the name of his dead dog, become heart-rending scenes of mutual recognition and suffering. There is no therapy for men like Joe. Much like many former soldiers and cops who do great violence unto others at the behest of money and power, Joe has been discarded and abandoned by the systems that once eagerly made use of his trauma. We meet him when he can only find moments of healing at the bottom of pill-bottles and in the eyes of the dying. As the film unwinds, his tragedy is discovering purpose, only to – in his mind – fail at achieving that purpose. The catharsis is the possibility that he did not fail after all. This is refreshingly subversive, hopeful filmmaking in a genre that so often makes martyrs out of its heroes.
Joe’s role in the cycle of violence mostly affects Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), the young girl he is tasked with saving, and his own aging mother (Judith Roberts), but the decision to contain the plot to only two other principal characters is incredibly effective. There is no time wasted on unnecessary side-plots or characters. We get Joe, the girl, and his Mom. The antagonists are motivated by vague machinations of predatory evil that would feel underwritten and exploitative in any other film, but Lynne so consistently grounds the plot in Joe and Nina’s traumatized psyches that the villains’ simplicity is never a problem. These shadowy foes are placeholders for an unattainable peace that Joe seeks throughout the story, whether in the barrel of a gun or at the bottom of a river. The women in his life are brutalized and exposed despite his best efforts to protect them, and of course his greatest tragedy is not realizing – until the end – that his very existence led to their suffering. It is this crucial irony that informs his entire character, and shapes the inherent pointlessness in his brutality. In this capacity, Ramsay avoids the pitfalls most films (made by men) fall into when attempting to intellectualize the evils of male violence. It does not glorify its hero, and more importantly it gives ample time to the suffering of its women independently of how it affects Joe. No fridging included.
You Were Never Really Here is a testament to the power of film as visual storytelling. In many ways, it calls to mind stripped-down psychological thrillers such as Wake in Fright (1971). There are perhaps fifty lines of dialogue in the whole movie. All we need to know about Joe, his employers, his family and his past is expertly dispensed at key moments of quiet and solitude, shattering the pacing of the film with sharp explosions of urgency. Ramsay reveals so much with so little, like an astronomer discovering planets based on the changing gravity of stars. The sound design and cinematography support a tightly-wound script that counts down with the inevitability of a heartbeat monitor, and the sequences of PTSD conveyed through a literal verbal countdown – whether to asphyxiation or drowning – are an absolute thrill to watch. This is a film that is as insistent as it is observant, as inescapable as it is unconcerned, as damning as it is forgiving. It lays bare the violent man at its center but gives him neither quarter nor forgiveness nor salvation. Only recognition.
You Were Never Really Here (2018) is an essential film. Lynne Ramsay elevates the action-thriller while reinventing the damaged male protagonist that lurks at its heart, giving him a depth and nuance that I’ve never before seen in this genre. Film was invented so complex, character-focused, visually-driven stories like this could be told.