You Were Never Really Here


Rarely am I as affected by a film as I was by You Were Never Really Here. 

You Were Never Really Here, a title that bears repeating, not only for its cadence - You-Were-Never-Really-Here - but also for its cinematic import, is a spectacularly beautiful, thought-provoking film. It offers a rare, brutal and unmistakable glimpse into our shared humanity.

The story can best be characterized as a traumatized veteran, Joe, who tirelessly searches for lost girls, at no consequence to his own life. The official, theatrical, storyline runs:

"When a job spins out of control, Joe's nightmares overtake him as a conspiracy is uncovered leading to what may be his death trip or his awakening."

You Were Never Really Here captures our miseries no less than our joys. It also produces, and this is perhaps what fascinates me the most, subtle lessons on how to overcome that which ails us, that which we are afflicted by: time, memory, pain, or the pleasures that take hold.

The film highlights, to stunning effect, that which we can learn to digest and surpass, not by suspension, or blissful ignorance,  or willful disregard, but rather, through incorporation, participation, and by actively working to over overcome our tribulations. 
Director Lynn Ramsay, who orchestrates this composition, instantly takes hold of our traditional assumptions. Like Nietzsche's madman who enters the crowded marketplace to announce the death of god, Ramsay jarringly displaces our readily adopted views of time, memory, pain, pleasure and violence.

Ramsay places us, as viewers, in an uncomfortable position: examining life from an interwoven perspective of what she names, "post-violence". Shifting in our seats, we can hardly look away. The landscape looks so unfamiliar and yet, somehow, we recognize its very contours.

Presenting a cohesive patchwork of thoughts, dreams and memories, Ramsay effortlessly weaves together our pain, pleasure and despair, into a comprehensive and meaningful engagement. Time never strays. It always, invariably, exerts its full force.  Despite its violence, or because of it, the film is deeply appreciative of the fleeting, teeming temporality of existence. Time carries us, as much as we carry time, until we give up, or it gives in. Mortality, and our sense of death, is never far from the screen.

Ramsay focuses our attention on the violence that emerges as these threads, often unknowingly, lest we say subconsciously, intersect. These intersections product violent encounters. Ramsay asks us a string of strident and impactful questions:

  • How can we carry the violence of our memories?
  • How can we endure the pain of our pleasures?
  • How can we resist that which overwhelms us?
  • Is there hope in our endurance?

The best way to describe You Were Never Really Here is as if Dylan Thomas refused to read Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night aloud and instead decided to silently utter these poetically resistant words to himself. The film brews with a burning sense of expression, of a trapped, cathartic energy. Some things must be said, while others we just haven't found a way to articulate.


The main character, "Joe", played by Joaquin Phoenix, is intoxicated by the pain of life. He carries with him a series of deep, traumatic scars. Scars of abuse, of war and violence, and, perhaps most alarming, his current state of affairs: a state of existence that could only be characterized as striving to endure the hardships of life. 

Occupying the paradox of a life fully-realized - through professional combat and service rendered - and yet completely unrealized - through relationships and love - Joe keeps on. He persists. It's hard not to see Samuel Beckett's prophetic words represented in Joe's particular gait:

"I can't go on. I must go on."

Flashbacks, more like schisms in his psyche (and in our viewership), anchor the audience in a stream of consciousness that is forever splitting itself as it reluctantly tackles the unlikely future. Aging, tired, and economical, Joe's heavy body demonstrates a physicality that is at once worn and provocative.  You realize that Joe has lived a time that is singular to him. You wonder how he's still alive.

As Joe's character transforms, so transforms the audience. We're taken through a metamorphosis, whiplashed and cajoled by his emotions and sympathies towards the world, and equally frightened and alarmed by his nightmares. The hero is described as "impotent of masculinity", and yet its sheer brutality that is characterized. Is this a death trip? Or, is he on a journey to awaken?

Joaquin Phoenix is gracious, beautiful, brutal and mesmerizingly enchanting in his darkness and silent humor. He describes his acting as a "body crackling with energy", and there's a definite appreciation of this active search he realizes in nearly every film he acts. His roles demand of him the same sense of unbridled pain and memory that Joe exemplifies, bringing to the surface the time that is imprisoned in our bodies.

Three particular scenes serve as a testament to Ramsay's vision.

  1. There's an early scene in which Joe struggles for his life. He's attacked by an unexpected assailant. Wrestling on the floor of a seedy hotel room, fighting to survive as his life is in imminent danger, the camera slowly pans to a mirror fastened to the ceiling above the bed. Immediately erotic, we're cast into an uncomfortable position of voyeurism, of participating in the act of violence, of witnessing our own nightmares and fantasies. At the same time, we're abruptly thrown into a position of complicity. 
  2. When Joe buries his mother, he disposes of her body in a lake. Filling her black, plastic body bag with rocks, he wades into the calm, still, gentle water. Slowly feeling her weight amass as he continues to walk forward. He attaches himself to his mother, unwilling or un-wanting to let go. His memories, his pain, his solace float to the surface, gasping for air. In a moment, it's as if everything will fade away into the recesses of the darkness or the clear morning light. And, yet, he persists, striving towards his existence, or sense of justice. 
  3. Having mortally wounded the man who is potentially responsible for the death of his mother, Joe confronts the dying attacker. Sprawled out on the kitchen floor, the assailant recognizes his futile situation: death is imminent.  He's always known his own mortality, felt it in his bones and in his work, and yet he never knew when it would come. Joe inquires as to whether he was the one who pulled the trigger, killing his mother, as if that knowledge would someone alleviate the anguish both men share. Lying on the floor next to each other, they hold hands as the dying man slowly gasps for his last breaths, recognizing in each other a shared plight.

The violent landscape that is presented is not a fetishization of violence, or glamorization of violence. It's virtually the opposite. It's the expression of our unexpected nexts, our hallucinations, and the narratives that comprise the singularities of our life. Through character flaws, no less than beautifies, Lynn Ramsay is able to achieve a graciousness, or recognition of violence, or the shared humanity that participates in the violence of mortality, that rarely goes witnessed in films.

Bobby George