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My 12 for ’18: “You Were Never Really Here” & What You Never Really Saw

It’s that time of year. I’ll counting down my top twelve films of the year daily on the blog between now and New Year. I’ll also be discussing my top ten on the Scannain podcast. This is number eight.

The premise of You Were Never Really Here suggests a certain type of film.

Joaquin Phoenix stars as Joe. The audience learns very little about Joe explicitly through exposition of dialogue, his back story and motivations suggested by quick cut flashbacks. As with a lot of You Were Never Really Here, director Lynne Ramsay understands something that may seem counter-intuitive to cinema, the notion that what is unseen might be as important as what is explicitly shown. Joe hunts down paedophiles and rescues children from their clutches.

That description suggests a thriller or an action movie, rooted in visceral and tangible violence. It might work as a direct-to-video exploitation film starring some actor with which mainstream audiences have no familiarity. It might also play well as a Liam Neeson release in early January, something akin to an even grittier Taken. At the more extreme end of the scale, it could play like a cousin to Joel Schumacher’s weird and overlooked 8mm.

What is so refreshing about You Were Never Really Here is that it doesn’t play like any of those, and is instead very much its own thing.

The most innovative thing that Lynne Ramsay does in You Were Never Really Here is to push most of the violence off-screen. Repeatedly, You Were Never Really Here sets up acts of violence and brutality, only to sharply subvert audience expectations and refuse to deliver upon them. The result is to distort what audiences think that they want from a story like this, and to challenge to the viewer about how they process these sorts of narratives.

You Were Never Really Here makes it very clear that Joe moves through a world that is extremely violent. Joe is capable of inflicting incredible brutality upon people, and often finds himself facing off against people who do horrible things in turn. Ramsay provides a number of obvious set-ups for horrific violence, but avoids fixating upon it. The opening sequence fulfills the narrative requirement of introducing the audience to Joe and explaining what Joe does, but it doesn’t show the act itself.

Instead, the camera shows the consequences of one of Joe’s vigilante acts. It shows Joe cleaning up afterwards, tidying everything away. There are hints of the violence that has clearly unfolded within the motel room, from the blood stains to the body in the bathroom, but no depiction of that violence as an end of itself. It is a remarkable piece of work, both from Lynne Ramsay as a director, Joe Bini as an editor and Joaquin Phoenix as an actor.

You Were Never Really Here understands that the audience wants violence in these sorts of stories, as a catharsis. The most charitable reading is that the audience wants the satisfaction of seeing morality imposed, and violence is a tool to that end. A less charitable reading might suggest that the morality itself serves to justify the audience’s bloodlust, that all the viewer wants from a film like this is to vicariously and sadistically indulge in watching other people suffer.

You Were Never Really Here acknowledges this in an early conversation between Joe and Senator Votto. Votto’s daughter has been taken, and he has hired Joe to retrieve her. “McCleary said you were brutal,” Votto remarks. Joe responds, noncommittally, “I can be.” Votto hands him the details of the hand off once the job is done. “Gonna need this,” he tells Joe. “Be at this address, 3am. Hotel Caribe, Room 701. I want you to hurt them.” The audience wants Joe to hurt them too.

Ramsay luxuriates in the set-up. You Were Never Really Here includes an extended sequence of Joe buying the implements that he will use to “hurt them.” He considers carefully which hammer to buy. He opts for duct tape. There is an unspoken promise underpinning this sequence, assuring the audience that they will get a chance to see bad things happen to bad people who have done bad things. The film builds and ramps on that.

However, You Were Never Really Here consciously and overtly refuses to deliver on that. Joe’s big attack on the paedophile ring is largely shown through CCTV footage, cycling around the house. As a result, the footage is grainy and awkwardly framed. More than that, the feed keeps changing, meaning that many of the key beats are missed; the camera cuts away before something brutal happens and the matter has resolved itself by the time that the feed comes back around.

This happens repeatedly over the course of the film. When Joe returns home to find his mother murdered, there are two men within his house. He kills one and wounds the other. He needs information, but he does not torture the dying man. Instead, the two hold hands. This murderer, this stranger, dies in Joe’s hand. This violent spectacle ends with Joe getting one of the men who murdered his mother a glass of water and gently serenading him with All I Need is the Air That I Breathe.

You Were Never Really Here is consciously built around narrative subversion. It undercuts the rhythms and structures of a story like this, in a way which can be frustrating for audience who want a story told in a more straightforward and conventional manner. However, in doing so, it actively and aggressively challenges the audience. Why does the audience actively want that violence? Why is that violence necessary for catharsis? In its own weird way, this is an exploration of storytelling like BlacKkKlansman. It very simply asks: Why not just tell better stories?

You Were Never Really Here suggests that the more interesting stories exist at the edge of this familiar narrative template, that there might be more to be gained from meditating upon the consequences and the aftermath of violence. Joe is deeply traumatised by all that he has seen and all that he has done, even before he began contracting himself out as a vigilante. The film lingers on how this violence fundamentally changes people and how difficult it can be to live with it. A violent act can last minutes or even seconds, but the impact lingers.

You Were Never Really Here is the rare film that acknowledges this fundamental truth, and positions it within a familiar genre template in a way that actively challenges the audience’s expectations. It is a remarkable piece of cinema.

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