You Were Never Really Here (Lynne Ramsey, 2017)
I have watched You Were Never Really Here three or four times, and it gives me goosebumps every single time. It was not the plot that caught my attention, but the main character, and Joaquin Phoenix’s interpretation. Phoenix turned Joe into a relatable man whereas, under normal circumstances, a disturbed hitman provokes no empathy.
The plot is quite common: Joe is a former soldier who now works as a private hitman. He specialised in recovering missing teenagers that are forced to work as sex workers. An ambitious politician (Alex Manette) hires Joe, via a third man, to recover his teenage daughter Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov). Apparently, Joe receives carte blanche to decide on the destiny of the sex-traffickers and kidnappers. Joe likes to brutally kills using a hammer as a weapon. In a nutshell, the movie is a gripping thriller.
The absence of uniqueness regarding the plot transcends our expectations of a mere action movie. The Scottish filmmaker Lynne Ramsey learned well the lesson that her colleagues from the French nouvelle vague once spread. Anti-heroes and losers can be as interesting as untouchable and glamorous film stars. Before the nouvelle vague, Hollywood bet exclusively on stories with very clear moral lessons. Film stars had to transmit some kind of endless allure, and villains were punished. Someone like me and you weren’t portrayed. We obviously wouldn’t have any interesting story to tell. In 2017, though, a subversive and fragmented man emanates more than charisma.
That is precisely the reason why critics have compared You Were Never Really Here to Taxi Driver (Scorsese, 1976). There’s no doubt that the shadows we see in Joe, we also see in Travis Bickle. But that’s because both Ramsey and Scorsese drank from the French source. There would be no Joe without Jean-Paul Belmondo (Breathless, Godard, 1960), or without the silence in The Does (Chabrol, 1968), or the sense of loneliness in Shoot The Piano Player (Truffaut, 1960). Beyond the similarities between Joe and Travis, You Were Never Really Here presents the city streets as in a Paul Schrader’s script (see Picture 1 below). The luminescence of the street lights disturbs Joe the same way it disturbed Travis. There’s something rotten in this big American city that must be eliminated. Hence the camera movements are speedy, flashy and frenetic. We watch the streets from a car window.
When Phoenix first read the script, there were parts that he didn’t understand and that intrigued him. Phoenix likes to co-create his characters in collaboration with the director. One day Ramsay sent him a tape with the audio fire of fireworks, explaining ”that’s the sound in Joe’s mind all the time”. Instinctively Phoenix had a physical reaction to the tape, which was key for him to find his character.
The choppy editing is another quality that places You Were Never Really Here at a higher level. From time to time we will find Joe having a breakdown. His solution to overcome it is by covering his head with a plastic bag and breathing in exasperation. (see Picture 2) Those moments link the audience to Joe’s mind. There is an abrupt cut on the narrative and some fragments of flashback invade the screen while the audience is trying to figure out why Joe is having a breakdown. Joe suffered abuse as a child. On top of that, Joe had some war traumas too.
Ramsey translates into cinema what the French essayist Roland Barthes expected from a good book. In “The Pleasure of the Text”, Barthes confesses that: “Thus what I enjoy in a narrative is not directly its content or even its structure, but rather the abrasions I impose upon the fine surface: I read on, I skip, I look up, I dip in again [...] the language lined with flesh, a text where we can hear the grain of the throat. The anonymous body of the actor in my ear: it granulates, it crackles, it caresses, it grates, it cuts, it comes: that is bliss.”
Essentially what Phoenix was unable to understand from reading the script was what Ramsey was hiding. Using Barthes words again: “What I hid by my language, my body writes.” The scene pictured above represents the actor’s body speaking louder than the lines on the script.
Joe has a complicated relationship with his mother, for having allowed the abuse to happen. Ramsey plays once more with film references, pairing Joe with Norman Bates in Psycho (Hitchcock, 1960). Then again we are able to see a consistent difference in both characters, that trace that makes us more empathetic towards Joe. Joe is tender. He is patient to his mother, he is caring for his mother on the same degree that he is caring for Nina. Phoenix found the tenderness in Joe. In Psycho, there’s no tenderness to be found in Bates. Perhaps Hitchcock wouldn’t allow Perkins to go through that path. Or perhaps Perkins failed to find it.
Of course, the thriller reaches its peak when Joe starts losing control. It was pretty simple to rescue Nina but there’s more to the story of the politician father. Up to that moment, it seems that Joe was capable of coping with the abuse because he developed a skill to detach himself from his victims and from his actions. The way Ramsey opts for the off-camera describes Joe’s detachment. The brutality in his killings comes in an incredibly tactful manner, as Joe is already in the next moment. We see his murders from a CCTV or we don’t see it very well. We see him leaving the dead body. No wonder he is a lonely dude (look at the Pictures 3 and 4 below).
But there’s something about Nina that he can’t detach from. The film ends with that feeling of attachment that everybody has experienced at least once. We often get attached when we cease to block our fears unconsciously. “Oh! I don’t even know how I fell in love with a guy like him. He’s totally everything I always avoided.” Or “Usually I don’t let cats get into my house, but this one, this one is different. He sleeps on my bed and I am super ok with that”.
You Were Never Really Here delivers the pleasure of passive consumption, and that’s all we ever wanted from the cinema.