Lynne Ramsay’s 2018 United States release of You Were Never Really Here is a masterpiece, a rare instance of what Hitchcock calls ‘pure cinema’ — where very little about the character and plot are explained but understood and felt by the viewer because of its cinematic composition.
This is evident from the beginning as Joe — the anti-hero brilliantly played by Joaquin Phoenix — leaves a motel room after cleaning up a bloody hammer and discards of personal possessions that are not his. He then takes a taxi home to tuck his elderly mother into bed. It is understood right away that this is a complicated character, one who cannot easily be understood or placed in the simple binary categories of ‘good’ or ‘bad’.
The point of view of the film stays restricted to Joe’s experience of reality which is completely distorted. His flashbacks to prior painful events that left him scarred and tattered include an abusive father, the Gulf War, and his time as an FBI agent. These horrific memories are never discussed but are shown on screen sporadically as Joe becomes triggered by everyday life.
The audience experiences some of these flashbacks with Joe — which come in no particular order and last for no particular length of time. These symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and his active suicidal ideation, which is shown in many different ways, helps us understand the cinematic experience that has been created.
As mentioned above, it is hinted in the beginning that Joe is a hitman of some sort but it is found out he is hired to find and kill men who are trafficking young girls. In the film, he is hired by a politician who’s daughter is thought to be at a brothel. Though most of his jobs are understood to go quite smoothly, this particular gig becomes complicated, forcing Joe to look past his own experiences and focus on saving the life of a little girl. This morally blurred job is an attempt to redeem himself for what he sees as past failures and offers the opportunity to find closure for some of his pain.
The joining link of the three instances that are constantly replayed in Joe’s mind is a sense of failure —as a child he failed to protect his mother from her husband, in the Gulf War he failed to protect a young Afghan who died at his expense, and as an FBI agent he failed to save a group of Asian girls who were forced into prostitution. Though failure seems to be staring him in the face and growling, hoping to force him into complete insanity, Joe is dedicated to saving the life of the politician’s young daughter. This hired killer has intense compassion which is ultimately his fatal flaw.
There is a fantastic scene where Joe is walking down a crowded Manhattan street — it is a beautiful sunny day and people are enjoying the city in their spring attire. Joe looks out of place in his dark hooded jacket and baseball cap but still, a young Asian girl feels comfortable coming up to him to ask if he would take a picture of her and some friends.
Once Joe agrees the group puts their arms around each other and start to fake laugh in order to capture the moment. The screen is then filled with an uncomfortable Joe as he holds up the phone, ready to snap a picture. A slight dolly in on the main character signals certain social anxiety that is evident. The reverse shot is an extreme close up that shows the girls laughing — an intense focus on their open mouths. The distorted shots of just certain parts of their faces appear painful, almost like they are crying for help. Joe’s heavy and loud breathing can be heard as the camera pans across the group and ends on the initial girl who had asked for this interaction in the first place. The camera frames her face right in the middle; her eyes are watering and she looks like she is ready to cry.
Joe’s voice can be heard mumbling, “What the fuck are we doing?” and a two-second flashback, which is thought to be from the final experience as an FBI agent, is the transition to the next element in the film. An extremely great example of Ramsay’s ability to produce pure cinema.
Though this film sounds to be horribly graphic and deals with dark subject matter, Ramsay is known for her ability to show just what is needed in order to force the viewer’s imaginations to be used. This technique is seen in her past projects, including her 2011 feature We Need to Talk About Kevin, which also deals with psychological themes. A good director is able to use the idea of pure cinema to build complex characters and plot but a great director is able to use the idea of not seeing to create every element. Lynne Ramsay is a fantastic director and arguably one of the best filmmakers of our time.
You Were Never Really Here is an intense film that understands trauma and is merciful to the correct characters. Joe is complex and complicated but not problematic which is common in tough man-led thrillers like this one. Ramsay successfully dissects Joe layer by layer. He wants to do good and make the world a better place but he has experienced too much dark reality to do it in the simple ways of volunteering at a local pet shelter or donating to a charity.
None of what I’ve talked about is explicitly outlined in the film as there is very little dialogue and no voice-over to explain. The film is completed in just 89 minutes which is only the result of a skilled artist. This is why Lynne Ramsay should have won the Academy Award for Best Director, yet she wasn’t even nominated.