You Were Never Really Here | dir. Lynne Ramsay | USA
TRIGGER WARNING: This article contains references to sexual assault and violence that may be triggering to some.
You Were Never Really Here offers so many sensations at once: curiosity, pleasure, sorrow, disorientation, anger. The most it has to offer, however, is fear. Just to be clear, we are not afraid of Joe, the war vet-turned-FBI-agent-turned-vigilante-hitman (or something like that—we only know as much information as choppy, tactile flashbacks provide). We are not afraid of Joe’s awkward idiosyncrasies, his intrusive and often violent thoughts, nor the many cold, brutal attacks he commits onscreen. Why should we be? Joe is, in essence, a man with debilitating PTSD who has kept himself in check by killing the worst people in existence. We do not fear Joe. Instead, what we fear—or what Ramsay wants us to fear— is the fact that the people Joe takes down with hammers throughout the film live even after the movie has ended; they pass us by on the sidewalk; they stand in line for groceries; they squeeze into our subway car.
So much of You Were Never Really Here feels like one long, drawn-out blur, or better yet, like a gust of wind that sweeps us up then drops us in a nondescript field somewhere, lost, disheveled, and scrambling to regain our footing. We never quite do, either. But perhaps this is the point. The film lends itself to unease, and this unease sticks with us long after the credits have left—like the aftertaste of a cigarette. Most of this unease is due to the subject matter, which is undoubtedly one of the most difficult kinds: over the course of the film, we learn that Joe (played masterfully by Joaquin Phoenix) has made a career of taking down men involved in underground child sex rings around the country and returning the children to their parents. For the most part, he sticks to the territory of NYC. Remember what happened the last time a director hinted towards the secret sexual goings-on behind New York’s closed doors? Looking at you, Stanley Kubrick. Maybe we’re jumping to conclusions. But is it really so far-fetched to suggest that The Academy’s preclusion of Lynne Ramsay from this year’s Oscar nominations is largely due to some desire to protect those morally ambiguous figures still snaking their way through Hollywood? Just look at Bryan Singer, the director of Bohemian Rhapsody, one of this year’s “Best Picture” nominees. His actions speak for themselves.
Speaking of speaking, the title of Ramsay’s film is uttered just once over the course of ninety minutes, and it is done by a Cincinnati cab driver within the first act. In the brief sequence, he sings to himself while Joe stares absentmindedly at the reflection of his mouth in the rearview. The soundtrack cuts to silence for a moment. You – were – never – really – here. We see the cabbie’s lips form the words and the title manifests onscreen in white but we don’t get the pleasure of hearing his voice. Perhaps the entire film is just one stealthy metaphor for this act of withholding. Lynne Ramsay has a secret to tell us, but all she can do is lip sync—watch carefully.
Part of what makes the film so special is that to say what it’s about is less satisfying than to say simply what it is. You Were Never Really Here is a splicing together of fragments in space: a photograph turning to dust, the cold fluorescence of a hardware store; neck welts soothed by frozen peas; a green bathroom flooded by suds; a murder mediated through surveillance cams; a rainbow-dotted polaroid; bloodied fingers clutching silverware; half-sipped milkshakes abandoned at a diner; the list goes on and on and on…
You Were Never Really Here is both a treat and a toxin, but don’t let this deter you from watching to its conclusion. It is powerful, it is stunning, it is hard to watch, but it is provocative through and through. It finds beauty in that which is horrific. It finds horror in that which is beautiful. It presents death both unabashedly and in all its proliferating forms, and it is so complete in this undertaking that we often stay with subjects until their very last breaths, as evidenced by a twitching foot, a quivering of limbs, a hand slowly losing its grip of another. Ramsay speaks the body in ways it isn’t usually spoken, and surely to express death so tenderly in one moment and so callously in the next is not an easy feat.
You Were Never Really Here is a film that loiters in the realm of abjection, and although we want so badly for it to leave it stubbornly refuses. Maybe it’s not so bad there after all.