You Were Never Really Here tells the story of Joe, a hitman who specialises in rescuing children from the sex trade. He’s a former soldier and FBI agent now living a half life, a ghost like existence looking after his mother and wandering around suburban New York. The narrative thread of the film is the story of a young runaway girl, Nina, who is taken and put to work in the ‘playground’ – a part of a brothel offering sex with children to high paying clients. Nina is the daughter of Senator Albert Votto who hires Joe to get his daughter back. When Joe rescues her and takes her to meet her father they learn of Votto’s suicide, then Nina is taken again by the men Joe rescued her from. There’s a great conspiracy thriller in this story but it’s not what You Were Never Really Here is about. The film is about Joe, it’s a character study of a man who seems to have drifted out of focus.
When we first meet Joe we see him, distorted, almost screaming in silence through an opaque plastic bag. We learn very little about Joe but what we do learn comes from flashbacks to past traumatic events. We never see his father’s face but we do see the hammer he uses to beat Joe and his mother. We see Joe hide in his wardrobe as his parents argue, partially asphyxiating himself with a polythene clothes bag. As a soldier he sees a boy shot by another boy so he can take his chocolate bar. As an FBI agent he is present when a lorry is opened to reveal a pile of dead bodies, immigrants suffocated as they were being smuggled into the country. All these horrors lurk in his mind all the time until something happens to bring one of them into focus, – a group of girls asking him to take their picture throws him right back to the dead cargo and that’s when we see just how out of place Joe is. He doesn’t see the happy, giggling girls, he sees a face locked into a scream, eyes brimming with tears, a life he never and could never have saved.
You Were Never Really Here could feel like a meditation on the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder of a soldier, arguably that’s exactly what it is but it doesn’t feel that way. The ghostliness of Joe, the way he clings to shadows feels like someone who is traumatised by the act of living. Suffocating himself started before he went to war, before he joined the FBI, Joe feels more like a man who has never fully realised dying. In the novel, Jonathan Ames describes Joe as someone always thinking of suicide:
Joe lay in bed in his mother’s house. He thought about committing suicide. Such thinking was like a metronome for him. Always present, always ticking. All day long, every few minutes, he’d think, I have to kill myself.
Lynne Ramsay’s subtle direction allows this aspect of Joe to play under the surface all the time. At no point does Ramsay ever resort to telling us what Joe is thinking, at no point does Joe expressly state his wish to kill himself, but it never leaves him. When he stands above the railway tracks, peering down at the viewer we know that in his mind he’s throwing himself in front of a train. It’s in his eyes, and that’s the genius of Joaquin Phoenix’s performance, he barely speaks but so much of what he does say is in a look, in a sad, lonely, half crazy expression in his eyes. The one time we see Joe genuinely attempt to kill himself he’s pulled back by a vision of Nina, he sees there’s still a chance to save her, he empties his pockets of the stones dragging him down into the water and swims back to the surface. In many films this part of the story would seem like redemption, in You Were Never Really Here it feels like a duty, in fact, it feels like a sense of duty is the only thing that ever stops Joe really letting go.
You Were Never Really Here is a masterclass in film, if ever the question of what film is, what film should be or what it is capable of, You Were Never Really Here is the answer.