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Non-Review Review: You Were Never Really Here

This film was seen as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival 2018.

“Close your eyes,” the vigilante “Joe Rogers” advises the Nina Votto as he takes the ball hammer to the naked man standing in the doorway. The camera remains focused on Nina, foregrounding her as Joe goes to work. The audience knows what is happening, even if they only see it out of focus and in the background. This small moment is indicative of how You Were Never Really Here has chosen to approach its subject matter. Director Lynne Ramsay cannily keeps most of its violence off-screen.

Ramsay does this in a number of interesting ways. Part of this is through the skilful editing of Joe Bini, who pieces together fragmented flashbacks that suggest unfathomable horror without ever feeling gratuitous or grotesque; leaving a tangible feeling of unease without ever feeling voyeuristic or intrusive. Part of this is down to how Ramsay chooses to place the camera during acts of violence, while keeping the acts themselves very abrupt and brief; characters are frequently thrown through doorways, for example. Part of this is simply cutting around the violence, exploring its aftermath.

The result is intriguing. Appropriately enough, given its title, You Were Never Really Here is defined more by what it isn’t (or what it consciously chooses not to be) rather than what it actively is. The concept of the film would seem to suggest some brutal seventies vigilante extravaganza, revelling in the righteous violence of a man who hunts paedophiles and exacts a terrible vengeance upon them. However, You Were Never Really Here instead opts to be something a lot quieter and a lot more considerate; a film about violence that refuses to linger upon or indulge in that violence.

There is something very effective in all of these choices, both as a response to how such violence is typically portrayed in cinema and on their own merits. Perhaps the most striking of these choices is the manner in which Ramsay chooses to approach this story from the perspective of a child, through the eyes of the victim rather than the archetypal hero. It is a bold and provocative choice, one that elevates the material.

The plot of You Were Never Really Here is very straightforward. Adapting the novel by Jonathan Ames, You Were Never Really Here sounds like the inspiration for any number of generic violent thrillers. The anonymous protagonist played by Joaquin Phoenix goes by a number of aliases over the course of the film, but he is largely defined by what he does as much as who he is. Joe hunts paedophiles, recovering lost children and bringing them home. Along the way, Joe leaves a trail of destruction in his wake.

It is easy to imagine You Were Never Really Here as a grim seventies film about an urban avenger who takes the law into his own hands to protect the most innocent members of society. It should be noted that there is even a remake of Death Wish coming out soon, starring Bruce Willis and directed by Eli Roth, with some speculating that it could be the infamous “Surprise Film” at this year’s Audi Dublin International Film Festival. On the surface, and from a distance, You Were Never Really Here would look to have a lot in common with these sorts of films. However, only superficially.

From its opening scenes, You Were Never Really Here emphasises violence without wallowing in it. The movie focuses on the consequences of violence rather than the act itself. Bloody tissues are something of a small recurring motif, flushed down toilets and scattered across desks. Over the course of the film, the audience sees dead bodies with much greater frequency than it sees the act of killing. There is often a deliberate discontinuity in these transitions. These characters are alive, then they are not.

Ramsay skilfully structures the film in such a way as to allow for these narrative lacunas. Of particular note is the decision to show a big action scene through a security camera system that loops around the property, conveniently missing the more brutal acts of violence in order to show the audience a simple “before” and “after.” Indeed, the film’s most extended death sequence is not so much cathartic as strangely affecting, building to a strange murmured rendition of I’ve Never Been to Me.

There is something wry and subversive in this, as if Ramsay is goading the audience by denying the expectations of the genre. You Were Never Really Here understands that violence in these films serves as something of a catharsis for the audience. Even beyond the visceral appeal of such brutality, the acts of violence in these vigilante thrillers serve to impose a moral order on the universe. They assure the viewer that there is some sense of righteous retribution in the world, that these traumas can be structured in a meaningful way.

Of course, this is an illusion. Trauma and horror do not work like that. in the real world, violence is not an ordering force, no matter how comforting it might be to believe that it imposes structure. In the world of You Were Never Really Here, violence is sense and arbitrary. It creates mess rather than offering solution. It leaves lingering scars instead of healing old wounds. You Were Never Really Here cannily avoids the myth of catharsis through violence in favour of a more honest form of brutality.

However, there is also something genuinely affecting in the choice. Joe is fleshed out through a series of quick context-less flashbacks scattered throughout the film, fragmented moments of horror or trauma that occur without dialogue or exposition. They suggest that Joe himself has experienced a “before” and an “after.” Indeed, the film suggests that Joe himself is struggling to come to terms with what happened to him, denied the same catharsis that Ramsay repeatedly and committedly denies the audience. Joe wants the catharsis and closure of the violence from a vigilante thriller, but never finds it.

You Were Never Really Here is a powerful piece of filmmaking, more notable for what it isn’t than for what it is.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Audi Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 3

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