What really separated You Were Never Really Here from other thrillers in 2018 – more so, even, than its impressionistic style and sparse dialogue – was its complete lack of hero. Lynne Ramsay’s fourth (and best) film takes the basic building blocks of so many hard-boiled cop/PI stories, including its Jonathan Ames-penned source material, and scatters them to the wind. Ramsay tears down the notion of self-sacrificing male heroes in favour of a haunting meditation on trauma and how it’s passed on.
He’s not the Messiah…
At the dark heart of You Were Never Really Here sits Joe (Joaquin Phoenix). Even before we hear a word from him or get any semblance of backstory, Joe doesn’t strike us as a “hero”. He’s bulky and beardy, with tatty clothes and, at first glance, is almost indistinguishable from the monsters he’s sworn to slay. As a hired saviour of trafficked underaged girls and brutaliser of their exploiters, his mission seems noble enough, but Ramsay utterly rejects the notion of elevating Joe to a messianic figure.
More than a higher, heroic calling, Joe’s missions have become the way he deals with his own deep-seated trauma, passing it on to others through violence. We catch very brief snippets of his backstory throughout, from the awful beatings of his mother at the hands of his faceless father to the hideous cheap deaths he witnessed as a soldier and an FBI agent. The damage these events inflicted upon Joe are ever present in his mind, and Ramsay and editor Joe Bini throw us right into his headspace with these sudden and intrusive flashbacks.
Joe’s head is not a pleasant place to be, and the rare occasions where we see directly through his eyes show us a deeply unnerving view of the world. Asked by a group of young women to take a photo of them, Joe can see only potential victims – the kind he will be asked to save by distraught and vengeful parents – and what initially looks like happiness warps to a wide-eyed silent scream of fear. Creating this broken a character and yet keeping them a compelling protagonist is a mighty achievement, a perfect fusion of visions from Ramsay and Phoenix.
Up there with his very best work, You Were Never Really Here confirms Phoenix’s position as the heir-apparent to Daniel Day-Lewis’s ‘Best Actor In The World’ title, now that the old master has retired on a joyous high with Phantom Thread. His performance walks the line between raw instinct and thorough study, and finds a tragic figure who is constantly being reduced. As his job to rescue senator’s daughter Nina (Ekaterina Samsonova) goes horrendously wrong, he loses everything. First, the stabilising figure of his employer (John Doman) is taken – a shocking image of mangled hands letting us know that the poor man died neither well nor quickly. Then, hitmen murder his mother in her own home. Finally, even his revenge is stolen.
Not only does Joe inhabit a world too grotesque and perverted to allow any real “good guys” to exist, he can’t even achieve the typical heroic finale of saving the girl and killing the baddie. Instead, Nina is forced to slit her abuser’s throat, the final straw of her innocence broken and Joe robbed of any catharsis. Throughout the film, the grander conspiracy is kept just as hidden from the audience as it is from Joe and, in the end, he has just as little agency in this world as Nina, no matter his physical heft. It’s noir storytelling taken to its most depressing extreme, a howl from the abyss that leaves you stunned and empty.
… He’s a very naughty boy.
While You Were Never Really Here may lack a hero, it most certainly does not leave you wanting for villains. The predilection of the powerful for preying on children makes for a soul-scouring setting, the sickness of these men matched only by Joe’s unique capacity to visit brutality upon them. Ramsay and Bini never let this violence become cool, or even cathartic, cutting around the moments of violence to show only the terror and confusion that surround the event.
The longest ‘action’ set piece (insofar as something this resolutely realistic can have actual action) keeps us in a state of distant remove from start to finish. Filmed entirely through security cameras, it’s a dizzying yet laser-focused mix of sharp angles, disorienting frames, fuzzy images, and muffled sounds. Joe is clearly very capable – the hired goons present as little threat to him as the naked, drugged-up rapists in the rooms they’re guarding – but this skill doesn’t stop him from vomiting in fear before starting his attack, nor is it enough to save any more than one girl from their clutches.
Joe rarely uses guns, or even bladed weapons. Instead, his arsenal consists of careful planning and a wince-inducing ball-peen hammer, the exact instrument with which Joe’s father terrorised him and his mother. Joe cannot escape this legacy (in flashbacks, Joe’s father’s voice is provided by Phoenix), so he chooses to exploit it in the knowledge that everyone he batters deserves it. Yet, in Joe’s mind, no one “deserves it” quite as much as him. He shrugs off pain, and teeters on the edge of suicide. A television solemnly plays out the Shawshank Redemption line about the Pacific having no memory, but even as Joe leads himself to water in an attempt to kill himself, his mind haunts him. He sees no reason to continue, but also cannot leave the violent purgatory that constantly engulfs him.
There are brief snippets of light in his life. Despite the obvious similarities between You Were Never Really Here and Taxi Driver, Joe is decidedly not a Travis Bickle figure – he’s more socially adept and doesn’t have any perceptible larger aims like “cleaning up the streets”. Before her murder, Joe gets on very well with his mum (Judith Roberts) as they sing together and snark at each other and, despite his own misery, he doesn’t revel in the suffering of others. After mortally wounding the man responsible for his mother’s death and then interrogating him for information, Joe comforts him in a truly extraordinary sequence of human kindness. Lying down next to his dying would-be assassin, Joe sings along with him to the unutterably cheesy ‘I’ve Never Been to Me’, before holding his hand. He allows a man who, just an hour before, was an immediate threat to his life, to experience one final human connection before breathing his last.
It’s not Ramsay’s only use of a disquietingly incongruous pop song, but it is the most impactful, taking a technique usually reserved for winking Tarantino imitators and granting it a new, sorrowful power, especially when mixed with Jonny Greenwood’s music. His second masterpiece of cinematic composition this year after his more classically-inspired Phantom Thread score, Greenwood’s work here is sensational even by his own very lofty standards. A discordant mix of aggressive strings and cold synths, it mingles with the angry, overwhelming sound design to complete the immersion in Joe’s exhausting world.
Amazingly, You Were Never Really Here is under 90 minutes long. Ramsay’s lean, confident storytelling, however, gives us every bit of necessary character and plot in this limited timeframe. In the best possible way, it feels a lot longer, the constant rising pressure trapping you in its world without a visible escape. There might have been films with greater political or metaphorical heft in 2018, but none could match the raw and visceral impact that is found here.
N.B. As our site is UK based, we work off the selection of films released in cinemas in the UK in 2018.
So to recap, here’s our Top 20 to 3…
3rd – YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE
Stay tuned each and every day for the remainder of the year to read more on our Top 10 films of 2018!