YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE Review: The Weaponization of Trauma
You Were Never Really Here is peculiar for the same reason that it is masterful. For a film about a disturbed man who traffics mainly in just violence - and constantly threatens to visit it upon himself - it actively resists actual depiction of that violence. And when it does depict it, it is unglamorous and cold in its brutality. It will not let the audience have its revenge fantasy, because revenge, fundamentally, is not a fantasy. It's a nightmare.
Joe, played pitiably by Joaquin Phoenix, is plagued by those nightmares, haunted by the traumatic events to which he’s bore witness. Memories of abuse suffered at the hands of his father, of disturbing experiences from a deployment in Iraq, of a case worked as an FBI agent with a horrifying aftermath, all drift effortlessly into his consciousness, bleeding out into the film. His haggard beard and sunken, wounded scowl suggest the countenance of someone teetering on the edge, a storm surreptitiously raging against himself behind his calm, soft-spoken demeanor. The storm manifests itself through his own suicidal tendencies, to which his many scars seem to bear testament.
Joe’s work at the least provides a target at which to point his violent instincts outside of himself. He is a hired gun - or hammer, his weapon of choice - tasked with rescuing young girls caught in sex trafficking in New York City. His extractions tend to leave a trail of messy bodies that suggest the justness of the cause may not be the point of his involvement. “They said you were brutal,” remarks the senator soliciting his services to find his daughter. “I can be,” Joe replies. The man tells him “I want you to hurt them.” Joe is more than capable of obliging him.
The set-up poses a stripped down riff on Taken, especially so once a shadowy conspiracy reveals its involvement in Joe’s latest job. This being the point at which those films would dive headlong into visceral thrills, it is also the point where this film deviates strongest, and most interestingly. Director Lynne Ramsay has spent her career examining expressions of trauma with poetry and grace, and her concerns remain in You Were Never Really Here. What would be the major action set piece in Joe’s rescue of Nina, the senator’s daughter, is reduced to us following Joe’s ascent into the Manhattan townhouse brothel via security cam feed. Cycling through each of the different cameras, Joe’s beatings of the various guards and clients he encounters is often obscured, and the moments where they aren’t have a distancing, chilling effect. Other scenes only show us the aftermath of his encounters.
The film’s violence is never the point. Rather great pains are taken to show us its effects. One goon’s particularly elongated death becomes excruciating not for the vicious nature of what happened to him, but what is going to happen after. Lying on the floor as he bleeds out, he reaches out his hand to Joe’s in a moment of comfort. Joe returns the gesture in a kindness that, for all of his ability to cause pain, Joe does not seem to take enjoyment or even closure from what he inflicts on others. Phoenix has played violent psychopaths before, but he may be at his best here, straddling the line between his pained brutishness and genuine care and gentleness. His default mode may have once been a generosity to others, a side of him that we see in his care for his elderly mother, another victim of his father’s abuse. He simply does what he does from necessity, because not doing it would mean doing it to himself. The phrase “Hurt people hurt people", while likely too pat and neat for Ramsay’s poetic style, would make a fitting coda.
It’s hard to say if the cycle of trauma in which Joe finds himself thrown about has a satisfying way out, but Ramsay makes a connection that could save him. Just as he has counted down as a way to shut out his childhood experiences, the young Nina does the same. And while her unfortunate path begins to reflect his own, including a tragically bloody incident with one of her captors, she may be better equipped to process her own trauma than he. In his darkest personal moment, Nina becomes the cause to keep going. Perhaps the way to heal is finding just one reason to live. “It’s a beautiful day,” she says during one of his episodes. He agrees. Some days something so small could be enough.
You Were never Really Here is now streaming on Amazon Prime and is available to rent and buy on streaming, Blu-Ray, and DVD.