You Were Never Really Here (2017)

  • Time: 89 min
  • Genre: Drama | Mystery | Thriller
  • Director: Lynne Ramsay
  • Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Ekaterina Samsonov, Alessandro Nivola, Judith Roberts


Balancing between feverish dreamlike hallucinations of a tormented past and a grim disoriented reality, the grizzled Joe–a traumatised Gulf War veteran and now an unflinching hired gun who lives with his frail elderly mother–has just finished successfully yet another job. With an infernal reputation of being a brutal man of results, the specialised in recovering missing teens enforcer will embark on a blood-drenched rescue mission, when Nina, the innocent 13-year-old daughter of an ambitious New York senator, never returns home. But amidst half-baked leads and a desperate desire to shake off his shoulders the heavy burden of a personal hell, Joe’s frenzied plummet into the depths of Tartarus is inevitable, and every step Joe takes to flee the pain, brings him closer to the horrors of insanity. In the end, what is real, and what is a dream? Can there be a new chapter in Joe’s life when he keeps running around in circles?


  • The film is framed with montages of apparently overheard conversations, chat with no apparent purpose, theme or coherence. If there is meaning to that collection it is elusive, especially when so many phrases are indecipherable.
    That also describes the film, a powerful but elusive narrative centred on a compelling, damaged hero. Ex-GI Joe completes a mission to retrieve a senator’s 13-year-old daughter Nina from sexual enslavement.
    But it’s not quite a character study and it is too enigmatic for a clearly defined thriller. I’d call it an expression of the spirit of the age, especially as it references today’s callous nexus of sexual and political exploitation in America. It’s the perspective of Scottish writer/director Lynne Ramsay.
    A governor seeking re-election wastes many lives to recapture his favourite sex slave, the underage Nina. That corruption costs the lives of his supportive senator friend (Nina’s father), along with Joe’s boss, Joe’s contact, Joe’s frail mother and several incidental thugs.
    While sensitively caring for his mother, Joe slips in and out of memories of his traumatic past, both as a Gulf War soldier and as the victim of an abusive father. His physical scars point to his psychological.
    His bare-chested scenes show Joe to be a massive physical presence, not muscular but bulky. His build is augmented by the bulk the beard gives the already intense Joaquin Phoenix. It leaves him virtually no face to read. Joe’s physical bulk is the opposite to Nina’s pre-pubescent frailty.
    But they share a common absence. Paradoxically, the very physical Joe is “never really here.” He is emotionally detached from his existence, paralyzed by the past traumas which he has attempted to flee in self-asphyxiation. Similarly, Nina retreats into the silence and removal of a drugged stupor so she is “never really here” either. Both Joe and Nina count backwards as if their retreat from consciousness were anesthetically induced.
    Telling details abound. In a miniature of Joe’s emotional confusion, he finds a green jelly-bean, his favourite, then crushes it. Buried in a lake, his mother’s long white hair escape the bag and float elegantly underwater. To bury her, Joe — suit and all — fills his pockets with rocks to deliver her to the bottom of the lake.
    The pedophile governor fingers the furnishings of a toy dollhouse, even setting in motion a rocker (like the one he’s off?). His luxurious mansion has a classical painting of a seductive woman with one breast exposed. The classical art is a cover for male-centred pornography, as the exposed woman is a cover for his obsession with the flat-chested girl.
    The violence is both ubiquitous and tempered. Most of Joe’s assaults are off-camera or shown obliquely through a security system. But we see him rip out a painful tooth, bloodying himself. As they chat, his agent litters his desk with tissues bloodied from his nose. In this world breathing means blood.
    In this lawless America the only police we see are the ones who steal Nina from Joe, killing the hotel manager and Joe’s connections. The governor has the power to commit and to hide his corruption. An elected government official assumes he is above the law — and his officials support that warping. (It’s only a movie. Right.)
    If the villainy is current America so is the trace of hope. The big macho hero doesn’t save this day. The small abused teenage girl does. This is Me Too with a vengeance — and a political impact. After Joe entertains the despair of suicide, she returns trim and possessed and takes command: “Let’s go.”
    The last shot is of the diner table Nina and Joe vacated. It’s an image of calm, symmetry, a pallid assurance a world away from all the film’s splattering. The victims have survived, escaped, saved themselves. As America yet may.

  • You Were Never Really Here, director Lynne Ramsay’s first film since 2011’s We Need to Talk About Kevin, begins with a series of slippery images. There’s a man with a plastic bag over his head, a close-up of a young boy, a burning photograph of a young Asian girl. Who is the girl? Who is the boy? Who is the man? There’s a strong insinuation that violence is the connective thread, and that the narrative will be as unreliable as memory or a dream.

    Indeed, the prevailing atmosphere of You Were Never Really Here, adapted from Jonathan Ames’ 2013 novel, is that of the hallucinatory and surreal, as particularly evidenced by the singularly remarkable moment when a man shoots himself in the mouth in a diner, the blood-splattered waitress oblivious to his state as she rotely places his bill on the table, the paper absorbing the pooling blood. There are a few certainties, and those rely on assemblage. The man with the plastic bag over his head is Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) and he is a contract killer suffering from both a childhood trauma and PTSD. As Phoenix portrays him, Joe, despite his bulk, is a shell of a man, barely present in his own life though capable of some amount of tenderness where his frail mother (Judith Roberts) is concerned.

    Joe is a hired gun specialising in finding girls trapped in sex trafficking rings and, when a state senator (Alex Manette) asks him to find and brutalise the men responsible for abducting his pre-teen daughter Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), it seems like any other job. Yet it’s not, for no sooner than he accomplishes his mission and stows the drugged-out Nina in his hotel room to await the senator, he discovers the senator has been killed and two armed men are at his door, one aiming a gun directly at his head whilst the other leaves with Nina. From thereon in, the bloodletting and body count increase tenfold.

    As with all her films, You Were Never Really Here showcases Ramsay’s photographic eye. If nothing else, the film is an assemblage of striking compositions, whether it be a poignant shot of a girl’s necklace, an evocative underwater sequence in which a woman’s white tresses stray out from beneath the plastic that she’s wrapped in, or presenting Joe’s rescue of Nina via the chronologically disordered perspectives of multiple surveillance cameras. Jonny Greenwood’s troubled, discordant score emphasises both Joe’s damaged state and the hellish world that surrounds him.

    For all its strengths and despite its misleadingly brisk 85-minute running time, this is a film that demands a great deal of the viewer’s attention. Whether it warrants that effort is debatable, especially since Ramsay doesn’t offer the viewer much reward, at least not in the conventional sense or even in the usual unconventional manner.

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