Arriving on a wave of praise and comparisons to classics, You Were Never Really Here is a dark and yet sometimes beautiful examination of a damaged man’s attempt to overcome childhood trauma. Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) tries to find his solace through brutal violence on child traffickers, but this endless cycle of vengeance and death only provides partial relief. When one such job spirals out of control, Joe is forced to find a new way to control his demons or risk losing his life and that of the kidnapped Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov).
Joe is a professional extractor of kidnapped children, employed by parents to rescue their child but also to wreck bloody carnage on the traffickers. The film opens with Joe, having just completed a job, returning to normal life. He lives with his mother who appears to be suffering from anxiety and dementia, and he acts as both son and carer. His initial calm is slowly replaced with restlessness, then he is tormented by visions of violence against himself as a child and his time in the military. His resurfacing trauma drives him to seek catharsis with another job, which is given to him by local politician Albert Votto (Alex Vannette). Votto claims his daughter, Nina, has been taken to a notorious house where young girls are sold for sex. Joe carries out the job with brutal efficiency, but Nina is taken away again. Joe now finds himself targeted by hired guns and goes into hiding, but soon finds there is no easy escape from his demons or those chasing him.
You Were Never Really Here is written and directed by Lynne Ramsay who has crafted a film which examines grief, memory and abuse. Joe uses extreme violence which he uses to work through the memories of his own abusive childhood. Flashbacks show his father terrorising the family with a hammer, which Joe now uses as his weapon of choice. The hammer is a potent symbol of how violence is passed down through trauma, with the abused constantly looking to replicate their experience in order to find a different path. Joe is shown to regularly asphyxiate himself with plastic bags or towels, a coping mechanism he used as a child to drown out the sound of his mother’s screams. This connects him to those traumatic memories and he appears to live in both the present and the past simultaneously – especially in his acts of violence.
Joaquin Phoenix is magnetic as Joe, bringing a hulking physicality to the role. An intimidating and powerful figure, he manages to recede further and further into his frame the more Joe’s psychological demons grow. It is a hugely impressive performance and Phoenix deserves his award of Best Actor prize at Cannes last year. The other characters are firmly supporting, all cast into Joe’s mammoth shadow. Ekaterina Samsonov is disciplined and still as the damaged Nina – she is rarely shown not sat or being carried, encapsulating her sickening situation as the plaything of men.
While Lynne Ramsey’s film often deal with ideas of grief and memory, notably in her adaptation of We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011), this latest film is also infused with hopefulness at the possibility of redemption. A clip of The Shawshank Redemption (1994) is overheard during an early scene, where Andy Dufresne describes how the Pacific Ocean has no memory – it is easy to imagine Joe would be captivated by this idea in the same way and would travel down to Mexico to wash the past off him. Similarly, there is a beautiful burial scene which takes place out in nature. It is a sequence which transcends the comparisons made between You Were Never Really Here and Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), which is a true classic but one which has room for little else than depressing nihilism.
You Were Never Really Here is an intense look at the insidious effects of childhood trauma on Joe, who is compelled to take his therapy with the business end of a hammer. But Lynne Ramsay has left plenty of room in the script for hope and Joaquin Phoenix gives a masterful performance as he presents Joe falling fatally low but then reaching out again for redemption. Brutal, yes, but surprisingly touching and cathartic.