Humans are, despite my own hopes to the contrary, an inherently violent race. There are some situations in which violence becomes inescapable – and when they occur, the common man usually turns to those willing to do violence on their behalf. You Were Never Really Here is an exploration of the life of one of those men, willing to do violence on behalf of others – for the right cause.
The plot is fairly simple. Joe is an ex-military man who retrieves children from trafficking rings. “I heard you were brutal,” a senator says to him before asking him to find his own child. Joe’s silence is the only confirmation we need. He sets out on a task to find Nina, the senator’s daughter, and the rest of the film ensues.
Joe, played with harrowing stage presence by a ragged looking Joaquin Phoenix, exists in some form of waking nightmare. He is the ‘hero’ of the story, but the actions he must take to emerge the hero are portrayed for us all to see. In these actions, which involve close-range hammer kills just off camera, we begin to understand that there is no real heroism here. Just the gritty reality of a man who reclaims children from child trafficking rings. We do, however, see Joe’s tenderness in his interactions with his elderly mother, and the children he rescues. He is, despite his chosen occupation, still sympathetic.
The film, like Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, is a close analysis of a man who exists at the fringes of society. Unlike Taxi Driver, however, this is a film totally shorn of adornment. It is raw, brutally practical and devoid of any sense of hope. Joe is suffering from his actions in life, shown in brief flashbacks. The score builds tension throughout – interspersed with a few select moments of diegetic music that jars the sense of suspense.
I don’t want to spoil anything – but the plot is secondary to the character study of Joe. The life of a violent man, whose deeds would usually be justified in the eyes of a viewer, but our limits are tested. Joaquin Phoenix is, as always, a terrific actor. The weight he brings to Joe’s dishevelled face, the almost hulking way he strides along corridors, the silence he treats the majority of the film with – they all add to the portrayal of a man who isn’t sure of his place in the world. Like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, Joe seems propelled by the idea of being a saviour, but we rapidly begin to understand that the issue is far more complex and darker than we can really grasp.
The film opens with Joe encasing himself in a plastic bag, counting breaths as he simulates his own death. There are multiple moments like this in the film. You Were Never Really Here, says the film’s title, and Joe himself seems unsure of his own existence. The title suggests a number of possibilities: Joe is not really ‘here’ to the people who hire him. He’s not really ‘here’ in society. Here’s not even ‘here’ in his own head.
Joe continues on, despite his yearning for death, in order to save these children – but what price is he paying? What type of existence is left to live, when you’re wholly consumed by the violent reality of the dark side of life?
Directed by Lynne Ramsay, with the same bleakness as We Need To Talk About Kevin, this is a masterpiece in exploring violence as a preoccupation. Both films manage to show so much without ever really showing on-camera violence – but You Were Never Really Here is my preference. It’s a pessimistic look at the world and the people in it, and will not be a film I hurry to watch again – but once I was washed clean I could look back and appreciate the incredible portrayal of Joe by Phoenix, and the interesting Nina character who promises his redemption.
Watch it if you liked: Taxi Driver, Prisoners, We Need To Talk About Kevin, Leon