Directed by Lynne Ramsay
You Were Never Really Here is a sparse, grim fairytale of a movie about a hired gun. He is Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), and his story covers just about all the same beats as other noirs in which a hired hand finds himself in over his head. In Ramsay’s film, however, the plot is efficient, conveyed swiftly enough to leave time for character moments that linger.
The film is quite brutal, but rarely do we see the actual moment of any violence. Instead it’s always the moments before or after, forcing us to see the texture of committed violence (the pools of blood) and the effects of those sudden departures (the pot of coffee still boiling, the book left open).
And somehow this makes all the violence a little more authentic, showing us what so many movies leave out. It’s the immediate aftermath, a sort of dent in the fabric of reality. What we see is not so much the emotional fallout of losing someone (though that is here too) but instead the physical effects, reducing people to flesh and blood. In most movies when someone dies we kind of see and feel them pass on. It’s about them confronting their own mortality or uttering succinct final words to a friend or loved one. The loss of their spirit is felt, and the body is just the vessel for that spirit.
But here we never see that transition. You’re living and breathing one second and gone the next, as if… wait for it… you were never really here.
The film follows a guy hired to track down a senator’s daughter. There is an address to a brothel and a request by the senator to make sure Joe hurts those responsible.
There will be no long sequence in which Joe must track down and uncover any sort of antagonist. He already has the address, and the brothel is not heavily guarded. Joe marches in there, as seen on a host of security cameras, kills the men he finds, many of them half-naked, and then saves the girl.
It’s only afterwords when the unexpected happens, at least for Joe. Someone kidnaps the girl from him, and suddenly every character we’ve met previously, the ones leading a trail back to Joe, are picked off. Those same people then come for Joe.
There will be explanations, but they’re not all that important. The movie itself isn’t all that interested in the reasons behind these events, just that a certain evil is out there, and Joe must navigate that evil, as if in a dream.
Joe is a twisted, tormented character but one who does show signs of lightheartedness. He’s a tragic figure, maybe a sort of Rambo, who both cares for an elderly mother and then doesn’t bat an eye when he bludgeons a man to death. This dichotomy isn’t explained or really investigated, just shown, similar to another Ramsay film, Morvern Callar.
So as much as this follows other plot lines, in some ways borrowing a lot from Taxi Driver and other such revenge films, the story remains a character study that is uninterested in all the plot questions. It’s as if that plot was copied and pasted, just to show the kind of disturbed character who would be required to drive it.
This is definitely a man in over his head, but it’s not another everyman story. Joe is a very specific character, as tormented as this entire world, as if, like with so many noir films, he has manifested this conflict or vice versa. He is a character who requires such a storyline simply to exist, like a superhero who needs his villain.
Up Next: First Blood (1982), It Chapter Two (2019), The Abyss (1989)