*WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS*
In 90 minutes, Lynne Ramsay has been able to create a detailed character study of a man struggling to come to terms with his past in You Were Never Really Here. Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) spends his days as a man for hire, specialising in saving children from kidnappings, sex trafficking and other unspeakable situations. With an elderly mother who is his only grip on normality, Joe is lost in a world which seems to have moved on with their lives while he is still haunted by his past. With minimal dialogue, Ramsay and Phoenix say so much about who Joe is and what drives him on this crusade.
Through the glimpses of the past that Ramsay provides us, we can piece together the memories and trauma that Joe has experienced leading him to seek redemption in later life. As a child we see a turmoil ridden relationship with his father who is shown to abuse his mother and presumably Joe too. The striking image of Joe, a plastic bag covering his head, opens the movie and mirrors the way as a child Joe hid similarly. We even see later in the movie Joe as an adult in the same wardrobe from his childhood reenacting what we see in flashbacks as though he has never put the trauma behind him.
We see images of Joe when he served in the military, flashes of women and children killed during conflict and these images linger for him. When a group of tourists ask him to take a picture of them, their faces remind him of other women he wasn’t able to save. The bodies of dead women in the back of a truck flashes in to his mind and he has to hide away from the world to recover from these thoughts. Seeing this level of vulnerability from a lead character shows Ramsay as understanding that purely action spectacle isn’t required to keep audiences hooked.
The plot of an aging veteran, dishing out justice to those who do evil is not a new concept. The likes of The Equalizer and Taken have all had success with this idea, but it’s the way that violence is depicted within You Were Never Really Here that sets it apart as something truly unique. While the previously mentioned films revel in the violence as a way to prove the heroes masculinity, Lynne Ramsay depicts these acts as repulsive and for the most part averts the viewer’s eye from the violence shown. The times when we are shown violence and when we have the violence shielded from us are chosen by Ramsay in direct relation to audience expectation.
I want to focus on three specific moments of violence and the ways that Ramsay has depicted them within You Were Never Really Here.
When Joe is the Aggressor
One instance in which the audience is spared from watching the violence by Ramsay, is the scene shown through CCTV camera footage of Joe breaking in to the hotel searching for Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov). We see the aftermath of men beaten down and Joe skulking through the hallways in search of Nina but never shown a clear view of the fights that took place. We catch the glimpses of fights but with all the cameras being static and at distances it’s hard to make out the full extent of what we see. For Joe, he desensitizes himself from the violent acts around him. Cutting between different CCTV cameras we are never treated to a full glimpse of the violence.
With this Ramsay has broken audience expectation. We are promised acts of violence with the build up to this moment. The purchase of the hammer, the comment from the Senator who hired Joe to find Nina saying “..you were brutal”. All of this weighs on the audience’s mind in the build up and to have our enjoyment of violence denied by Ramsay helps to reflect on the way Joe sees the violence. This isn’t a pleasure for him; this is a job. He doesn’t do this for fun but with a sense of purpose that he doesn’t want other children to suffer the way he or his mother did.
When Joe is the Victim
However, when Joe is taken by surprise, that’s when we are shown violence onscreen. A moment like this is when in the hotel, having just rescued Nina, there is a knock at the door followed by the swift death of the hotel clerk as Joe answers it. The man is shot in the head and without time to react Joe’s face is covered in blood. This is the first act of violence we have a front seat, unobstructed view of and it isn’t long until we see the repercussions of this. Moments after Nina is taken away, Joe has a violent outburst killing the remaining assailant in the room. It’s the first time we really get to see Joe at work with the violence he has made a name for himself with. It’s a mess to watch as the two roll around on the floor struggling to survive and even after Joe leaves the victor, he is badly wounded.
This shows the way in which Joe has been able to accustom himself to the violence he sees from day to day working his job. When he deals the violence it is calculated, brutal but always with purpose. The violence against him sees a change in camerawork in which the view of the two men fighting becomes unstable. Compared to the stillness of the CCTV cameras, this feels animalistic. This feeds back into the idea of audience expectation with violence. Our first real “treat” is from Joe having his face covered in blood but it comes as a shock to the system rather than as a build up of events leading to the moment. Throwing in these moments of violence out of the blue instead of giving in to expectations helps put the audience on edge and leaving them second guessing themselves.
When Violence is Self-Inflicted
We are left with a striking ending in the final moments of You Were Never Really Here. In a diner as Nina leaves for a moment, Joe sits alone at the booth. He pulls out his gun and shoots himself in the head. Blood pours across the table and covers other patrons around the room. It’s shown eventually that this all played out in his head but with it being the most violent image we see in the film it stands out as a powerful moment. In his head he could die right there in the room and no one would notice him gone.
Once again the violence is a sudden act, there is no build up. I remember this being the most shocking moment of the movie. Having our hero succeed in his quest to only still feel lost was heartbreaking. We would expect our hero to gallantly ride off into the sunset with his new ward in tow. Instead we see a man who is so deeply troubled by the violence he has taken out on others and that he has witnessed on those he loves that he contemplates suicide.
The person to wake him out of this is Nina, someone who has gone through trauma but can see the good in Joe and what he has done. Her final line of “Joe, wake up. It’s a beautiful day” sits as a reminder to Joe that if this girl who has experienced unimaginable trauma can still see the beauty in the world and can still see hope in him then maybe he isn’t as invisible as he has feels. The smallest glimmer of hope is sometimes all we need to carry on.
by Shaun Alexander
Shaun Alexander is a freelance writer based in London. He currently studies Film with inspirations of screenwriting and directing in the future. His favourite films include the likes of Inside Llewyn Davis, Fish Tank and The Lobster, and enjoys writing on aspects of toxic masculinity and mental health in film. He has recently realised a love for the genre of “Period Drama Women Behaving Badly” Follow on twitter @salexanderfilm
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