“You Were Never Really Here” is the latest version of my favorite story in movies. A suicidal, broken man survives in a cruel world by channeling his rage outwards, and he eventually focuses it into a brutal quest for vengeance and redemption in the eyes of women. Joe (the perfect Joaquin Phoenix) is muscle that rescues young girls who have been kidnapped. In our first meeting with him, he has placed a plastic bag around his head, the material distorting the shape of his face in a haunting visual. Soon after, we see him disposing the bloody remains of a successfully completed rescue mission with a military coldness. It’s transfixing from the very first frame.
The main story of the film involves a rescue that does not go according to plan. It is so filled with twists that providing more detail would ruin it. Suffice to say, it is both completely unpredictable and induced with a sense of inevitability, like all the best tragedies. Writer and director Lynne Ramsay does several things in the telling of her admittedly unoriginal story that help the film become as electrifying and beautiful as it is.
Firstly, and perhaps most importantly: Ramsey finds something new by thoroughly interrogating the misogyny of her plot, her characters and her world. Joe’s relationship with his mother (Judith Roberts) is the only real one in the film, and we quickly see how that relationship, one of a caretaker and patient, is echoed in his work and in his perceptions of women. One might think that Travis Bickle in “Taxi Driver” had a similar relationship with his mother, shaping his Madonna-whore complex. More brilliantly, Ramsey treats the violence committed against women with the weight it deserves. Like many movies, this one has a lot of this violence, but instead of just accepting this as a fact of life like many other directors, Ramsey forces us to actually consider the impact that violent men make on women. Violence here is never a cheap way to advance the plot; it always carries with it an existential weight. Joe, and the film, have a hyperawareness that becomes unbearable.
Relatedly, Ramsey does something with violence in general in the movie that I would love to see more filmmakers adopt. In most thrillers, especially slow-burners like this one, violence is a reward for the audience. We sit through horrors just to see Joe bash someone’s head in and get some kind of catharsis. Ramsey robs us of this. She rarely shows us more than the build up and the gruesome aftermath to violence. When we do see the acts, she depicts them clinically, all in wide shots of quick shots of the weapons. Instead of being excited, we feel sick at this demythologization. We are forced to question why we wanted the violence in the first place. By taking time to show us the before and after, Ramsey makes us feel like we are in an inescapable nightmare, where horrors occur and we have no idea why.
Ramsey doubles down on that feeling with her keen attention to poetic details. We see hands, hairs, eyes, but rarely whole people. Little movements of the characters mean the world, and little details in the setting are examined until we feel like we are in the scene. “You Were Never Really Here” is a collection of fragmented memories – scary ones, like a nightmare. But not just any nightmare – the kind that haunts you long after its over because you know that your fears are right.