A countdown introduces You Were Never Really Here; a dissociation to escape trauma and a tactic to numb the pain. Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) understands pain. It’s become a part of him, not just in the physical violence he has dished out and taken over the decades, but in the overwhelming emotional weight he carries. Director Lynne Ramsay knows that as much as the scars and bruises on Joe’s body hurt, the pain we can’t see is infinitely worse.
Ramsay adapts Jonathan Ames’ novella skillfully, creating a realm in which silence and distance are as necessary as they are in the text and attributing striking visuals to a mostly internal narrative. It’s a character study disguised as a thriller, an art film with exploitation roots, and Ramsay’s script expands and improves Ames’ story without an ending in the best way. The plot is simple, focusing on a hired hitman who rescues young women from sex trafficking situations and whose latest job has gone horribly wrong.
This isn’t a Taxi Driver riff though, as Ramsay has no interest in a character with a God complex killing others for a purpose. This isn’t a Charles Bronson movie or some cheap paperback that has no interest in exploring the psyche of the protagonist. Ames’ text itself presents Joe as a tortured individual, one whose very existence is a burden. The passages of the novella that describe Joe’s suicidal tendencies are literalized by Ramsay and director of photography Tom Townend, both in close-ups of Phoenix’s head wrapped in plastic and in a haunting moment where he’s suspended breathlessly in a lake as though he’s drowning; a serene moment of death.
There’s little beauty to the world through Joe’s eyes, and Joe Bini’s editing emphasizes that with harsh cuts between what is happening in reality and what is happening in Joe’s mind. One second the viewer is watching Joe sitting in his bed recovering, and the next he’s in a closet as a child, hiding from his father. And the next he’s at war. And the next he’s finding a shipping container full of dead women. And the next he’s back at home, in the present, with his mother, mimicking normalcy for just a few moments.
His mental illness, his trauma, is a part of him, and Ramsay hones in on that beautifully by crafting the entire film around what life feels like to him. This goes past the visuals and even past the aural soundscape that Jonny Greenwood creates, the noise of the world fading in and out of ambient bliss and discordant horror. It’s in the little gestures and details, and it extends to Phoenix’s physical performance, his body becoming a tool for pain, both internal and external, damaging others and himself in the process. Joe is a man internalizing so many feelings and rarely allowing emotion to burst out and the work mirrors that.
The empathy Joe has for those around him shows up in the simplest ways. It’s in the close-up of Phoenix’s hand wrapping around the hand of the man slowly dying next to him on the floor. It’s in the way he puts a delivery boy to sleep instead of disposing of him for being associated with pedophiles. It’s even in the way that, when a monster lies dead near him, he breaks down knowing that someone else–an innocent, no less–has to suffer the same trauma he does and has to go on existing in the same detached manner that he does. It’s clear that Ames and Ramsay have written a character who is not killing for fun; it’s avoided when possible and each death has a weight to it.
You Were Never Really Here is a triumph of empathetic filmmaking. As in her prior works, Lynne Ramsay uses her skill as a filmmaker to dive deep into the mind of a character trapped in a world of misery. But for all the dissociative episodes, dead bodies, and dire situations on screen, the film hints at a note of optimism, or at least of implied survival. “It’s a beautiful day” is a simple line of dialogue, and a grace note that offers some vague motivation to exist when everything feels like an ongoing struggle. Life may move on after your death, but at least, for now, you’re alive, and that’s okay.
Directed by Lynne Ramsay; written by Lynne Ramsay; based on the novella by Jonathan Ames; starring Joaquin Phoenix, Ekaterina Samsonov, Alex Manette, John Doman, Judith Roberts, and Alessandro Nivola; 90 minutes.