Horrible things happen to people in Lynne Ramsay’s new film You Were Never Really Here. I saw the first trailer many moons ago and knew immediately that it would be a must-watch, but not every must-watch is for every person. As much as I liked You Were Never Really Here, it feels a bit wrong to say that I “enjoyed” it as it will be triggering for many people.
The first minute of the film is a series of images played over a skin-crawling chorus of voices. The images: a plastic bag over a man’s face as they struggle to breathe, duct tape, a necklace that says “Sandy.” A photograph of a girl. The voices are either one man’s voice, or several, saying horrific things to what sounds like children. It’s an immediate warning to all who dare continue beyond this point.
Joaquin Phoenix is Joe, a man grizzled from both age and stress. We first see him emerge from a hotel room, beat up someone, and get on a train home to his elderly mother. He is her caregiver. He’s also extremely dangerous, and is drawn to sharp objects. At one point he is talking to his mother through a door, motioning the stabbing and sound from Psycho. He begins to drop a small knife to the floor and taking his foot away, over and over, seemingly intent on nearly hurting himself. Joe is covered in scars and bruises.
Joaquin Phoenix’s range is seemingly boundless. He navigates that chasm of terrifying serial killer and awkward man that still lives with his mom with ease. Notably, the way that Joe behaves around his mother is demonstrative of the character’s stunted growth, but it’s very subtle in Phoenix’s hands.
At first, the only clear thing about Joe is that he is a disturbed man and brutal contract killer. But soon enough, the story unfolds itself, and we learn that he saves missing and exploited children from trafficking with a P.I., and they split the reward. Much of the reasoning behind it is what makes up those images and voices that we now recognize as flashbacks, that are now bread crumbed through the film as a whole.
The entire beginning builds to an incredible sequence wherein he raids a facility by himself, though his movement is shown through security camera footage, and masks a lot of the action violence. Of course, the bodies are left over, or suddenly absent, or thrown out from a room and beaten. But as we wince through each hit of his hammer and think about the purpose that he is serving… you may not agree with the means, but the people he gets are unambiguously guilty.
This raid kicks off the rest of the film. The last half of this 90-ish minute sprint of film is incredibly tense, and gory. Ramsay doesn’t always show how someone gets mutilated, but she for damn sure will show you what someone looks like when they’ve been shot through the eye. It’s Capital-G Gore.
There’s a political subplot and if you miss the first reference to it, it pops up again. At times, the film initiated a mental rewind that addresses the things you may have been confused about earlier on. But this rewind may not work for those seeking a straightforward story. Someone entering the theater without any background on the film might have a different perspective than someone who has anticipated the release, or read a review. Thankfully, the film isn’t very complicated, but the end leaves something to be desired. It knows that it can’t save the world, but it doesn’t present a solution outside of vigilantism.