You Were Never Really Here (2017)

McLeary Said You Were Brutal

There are films that make you cry. There are films that make you laugh. There are films that make your adrenaline surge, and there are films that encourage you to, and bear in mind that I write the following words with utter contempt, switch your brain off and presumably clap along like a bloated seal.

And then there are the other films. The ones that sweep you along for the ride and keep your eye drawn to the screen for every single frame, for fear that a blink might ruin the moment. These are the films that leave an impression on me, the ones that make me feel like I’ve just condensed an entire novel into a space of about two hours and feel more intelligent because of it.

Films that make me walk out of the cinema and feel like I’m still in the world.

Films that make me feel something.

Films like You Were Never Really Here (2017).

It’s A Beautiful Day

Written and directed by Lynne Ramsay, (adapted from a novella of the same name by Jonathan Ames), You Were Never Really Here follows the story of Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), a deeply troubled man, who has just finished a job somewhere in Cincinnati. We don’t know the full extent of the job, but judging by the bloody hammer, the small items of evidence and Joe’s alarming body language, we soon glean that he is a hitman.

After sneaking out of the hotel, Joe returns to New York City, where he joins his elderly, somewhat infirm Mother (Judith Roberts). We see him to be caring and gentle with her, though the seeds of Joe’s depression and suicidal thoughts are laid bare. This is a man who is ready to die, and yet, the commitments he has for others keep him going – no matter how frustrating this might be.

Later, we see Joe go about his routine. He winds up in the office of his boss, John McCleary (John Doman), who provides Joe the details of his next job. The teenage daughter of Albert Votto (Alex Manette), a New York politician, has been kidnapped. Fearing the worst, it is assumed that Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov) has been press-ganged into working in an underage brothel somewhere in Manhattan. With the location provided by anonymous text, Joe meets with Votto and accepts the job without hesitation. As he prepares to leave, a teary-eyed Votto demands Joe hurt the people responsible. It is clear that Joe is pained by the thought, but he accepts.

After a day of well-though preparation, Joe suffers multiple flashes of PTSD, showing more of the abuse he himself received as a child, to the damage he feels responsible for during his time in the military, and later the FBI. Child abuse, and specifically, child sexual abuse has been a part of Joe’s life, and he visually seethes with rage over the job ahead of him. It’s worth pointing out that the dialogue in You Were Never Really Here is extremely minimal. The story is told visually and through performance, with an underlying score of chilling chaos by composer Jonny Greenwood, setting the tone of the piece in a way that leaves you transfixed.

Eventually, Joe stakes out the location of the hidden brothel, eventually snatching one of the employees off the street to discover the code for the door. What follows will be familiar to anyone who’s seen Taxi Driver (1976). Wielding his signature hammer, Joe storms the building, taking down the pair of security guards with chilling calmness. One by one, Joe storms the rooms of the building, slaughtering the men responsible and freeing the young girls, who hauntingly appear from their rooms, eyeing the naked bodies of their abusers with alarm.

Finally, Joe finds Nina, who appears in a state of trauma. Carrying her out, Joe takes Nina to the motel he agreed with Votto. As Nina sits on the bed, watching the television in silence, Joe is quickly alarmed when the news reveals that Votto has apparently taken his own life, having jumped (or been thrown) from the top floor of a busy office building.

Then things go wrong. Badly wrong. In no time at all, Joe finds himself fighting against the current of conspiracy, revenge and mindless slaughter. Fighting against his own mind and the growing terror and agony within him, Joe’s strength and endurance is put to the test. But, as the situation grows ever worse, Joe keeps going. Keeps fighting. The only thing pushing him on is his inability to let go of the responsibility of helping others.

I want to say more at this point, but I really can’t. The emotional torture Joe is subjected to far outweighs the physical pain he has to endure, but at no point does Joe fall into the trap of so many screen ‘heroes’. He acts because he must, but there is rarely any sign of his desire to actually physically hurt and or seek revenge on even the people who have hurt him.

Two scenes genuinely stand out to me as some of the most painful, most memorable scenes I’ve seen in a long time. Without context, this shouldn’t spoil anything – but please skip to the end here if you are planning on watching this film (and you should).

The first is after Joe injures a man, an intruder to his home no less, and fails to kill him with his first shot. At first he acts with anger, but as the man lies dying in his kitchen, Joe does not act vindictively. He sits with the man. As the dying man sings to the radio, so too does Joe. In the end, the man reaches out, and Joe holds his hand as the last glimmer of life fades away.

Holy. Shit.

The very next scene shows Joe on the verge of suicide – for real this time. As he floats beneath the water, he sees the person he leaves behind. He watches as they drift into the darkness before he realises what he’s doing, empties his pockets of stones and returns to the surface – the other figure rising with him.

The power of these two scenes is incredible, the fact that are almost back to back is truly devastating. You find yourself feeling for Joe in a way that I find hard to describe. This is without a doubt due to the strength of Lynne Ramsay’s ability as a director, though Joaquin Phoenix’s performance is without fault. The supporting cast, too, are remarkable – with Ekaterina Samsonov providing a truly haunting performance as Nina.

To provide some balance, I would say that there were a couple of sections that felt just a little too long. Towards the end I certainly found my attention drifting to wonder what other people were making of the film – notably one guy (who appeared to be on a date) met my eye with an expression of, “I wish we went to see Game Night instead.” Joe’s character seemed a bit hard to like at first, but this seems deliberate, and long before the end, I was completely on his side.

There isn’t much more for me to say. This is a film that transcends its medium, providing a chilling, nightmarish insight into the world of child sexual abuse, mental health and, basically, presents a contemporary Noir-ish nightmare that will likely stick with me for a very, very long time. I can totally see why it received a seven minute standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festival. If you were expecting John Wick, you’re looking in the wrong place, my friend.

Now, please excuse me while I catch up on everything Lynne Ramsay has ever made.

Phenomenal. Go watch it.

Yours, A P Tyler

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