Since You Were Never Really Here has hit theaters, I’ve repeatedly seen it compared to several action/crime films. Mostly Taxi Driver but also Taken and even Drive. The films are definitely similar, so the comparison is apt, but I think the real interest lies in the ways that You Were Never Really Here subverts this over-arching genre. Writer-director Lynne Ramsay has created something entirely new with her latest feature.
You Were Never Really Here is about Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), a hitman of sorts who rescues young girls from child sex trafficking. As is often the case for characters in the criminal-for-hire line of work, Joe has a troubled past. We don’t know too much about his life prior to the film’s beginning, but we eventually glean that he is a veteran and that he too suffered abuse in his childhood.
In a time where few depraved acts of violence are off limits in so far as what can be portrayed on screen in a film, the lack thereof has developed a certain power. This is where Ramsay’s film parts ways with Taxi Driver and others like it. Violence is a staple of these types of movies. And while You Were Never Really Here is undoubtedly a violent film, graphic violence rarely makes it into the frame. The film is set out to prove something different: that violence isn’t cinematic, and that violence isn’t a solution to any problem. The vast majority of action/crime films are built upon the idea that the exact opposite is true. This isn’t to criticize movies that take liberties with their representations of violence or to advocate that violence should be removed from films, but just to highlight how interesting a movie that disrupts this standard can be.
A pillar of action/crime films isn’t simply the presence of disturbing visualizations and bright splashes of blood, but also the way in which this violence frequently acts as a catharsis for the film’s characters. In Taxi Driver, Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) finds his peace when he is finally able to rescue the 12-year-old Iris (Jodie Foster) from her pimp’s apartment through a graphic and bloody shootout.
Drive, directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, who is famous for his meticulous aesthetic touch, turns bloodshed into something truly beautiful with hypnotic color palettes and flawless editing and direction. Through Drive‘s many brutal scenes, the aimless Driver (Ryan Gosling) eventually finds a kind of purpose.
And of course, Liam Neeson is able to retrieve his kidnapped daughter in Taken thanks to his “very particular set of skills,” i.e: the ability to savagely but stylishly beat up whoever stands in his path. In the end, these very skills are what lead him back to his family and out of his lonely lifestyle.
You Were Never Really Here does not use violence to this same end. In fact, the film denies us any kind of catharsis to be found in violent moments. Even when scenes seem to be leading up to a release, the camera cuts away. Almost all the fights, murders, beatings, and sexual violence happen either out of frame or moments before we arrive at the scene, only for us to find a lifeless body, throat slit, at Joe’s feet.
The most graphic the film gets is probably when Joe breaks into the Manhattan brownstone where the 13-year-old Nina is being held. The entire scene is presented in pixelated black and white footage from high angles, imitating security camera footage. The camera captures Joe beating people with his weapon of choice — a ball-peen hammer — but the violence is drained of color and sound. It feels surgical, not frightening. Even when you consider the fact that he’s stopping terrible men from doing horrible things, the scene presents no feeling of satisfaction. Instead, this moment is disturbing for its realistic look into the world of human trafficking.
The scenes that actually do offer Joe, as well as us as viewers, an emotional release come to us in ways that would feel entirely out of place in traditional action films. Rather than taking the form of scenes that entail fatal blows, they are ones that showcase true vulnerability.
When Joe finds his mother murdered in her own bed and realizes there are men in his kitchen waiting to off him as well, he swiftly shoots them — we get to see Joe fire the shots but not the receiving end. Then, as he stands in his kitchen absorbing the shock of his mother’s death, a mere preamble to the grief that will soon come to consume him, one of the wounded assassins, hanging on to his last breath, drags his way into the room.
Joe tries to get some information out of him but swiftly gives up and resigns to lying on the ground next to him and staring at the ceiling. Then, the only sound we hear is Charlene’s “I’ve Never Been to Me” playing on a distant radio. The assassin starts to softly sing along. Joe joins him. And when the assassin reaches out for a hand to hold as he passes, Joe gifts him one.
In this way, You Were Never Really Here completely changes the way we think about violence in cinema. By refusing to let senseless and brutal moments act as a release for repressed emotion, the movie produces a unique and incredibly powerful meditation on inescapable trauma. The reason that scenes like this one work so fluidly in this film is that Joe is nothing like the typical masculine action hero.
Right off the bat, Phoenix’s body type is something out of the ordinary for this type of movie. Instead of a typically chiseled and buff frontman, Joe has a bit of a gut on top of his muscle. He exclusively wears dark hoodies and worn out jeans and he has long greasy hair and an unkempt beard. Compare this to Driver’s iconic scorpion jacket in Drive or Travis’s mohawk in Taxi Driver. These aspects of Joe’s physicality immediately cement the way that this film won’t be romanticizing or glossing over the toxicity that the confines of masculinity can have on someone suffering.
In terms of Joe’s backstory, the only things we really learn about him come to us by way of extremely brief and disarming flashbacks. These vignettes show us glimpses of his time in the military as well as moments from his childhood when his father abused his mother as he hid in fear. The interesting thing about the way the film presents these scenes is that they’re not there as if to say “this is why Joe is like this, this is what made him this way,” in the vein of every Batman movie showing us how Bruce Wayne’s parents were shot dead by a mugger. Instead, they come to us in the same way that they must be constantly intruding Joe’s thoughts.
His past invades his every waking hour. He can’t not think about the dead body in the sand that he encountered in combat and he can’t not picture the look on his mother’s face as she cowered under the kitchen table hiding from his father (who used a hammer too). These moments flash on screen the way a memory you try to suppress constantly shows up against your every desire, but they never linger long enough to offer any larger explanation.
Joe’s backstory is presented in this manner because he finds no escape from his past through violence. His profession provides him nothing but brief distractions. He couples his job with other unhealthy coping mechanisms like putting a plastic bag over his head, only to rip through it and gasp for air at the last possible second. By showing us how difficult — almost impossible, depending on how you read the film’s ending — it is for Joe to overcome the trauma that has followed him his whole life, the film presents something honest. A hard truth, but one that’s forthright. There’s no easy way out of the deep hole trauma traps you in, even if you’re the lead in an action film.
“Joe? Wake up. Let’s go. It’s a beautiful day,” says Nina, to which Joe utters the film’s final lines: “It is a beautiful day.” He hasn’t found an answer, a solution or a lasting escape. But maybe he can. With You Were Never Really Here, Ramsay has managed to once again take a relatively simple premise that seems almost overdone and not only turn it into something new but something vital.