You Were Never Really Here traps us inside hitman Joe’s mind — but he’s an unreliable narrator who is far more helpless than he realises. This is the sixth feature in our Special Issue on You Were Never Really Here.
When we first see Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) in action in You Were Never Really Here, he fulfills all our expectations of a hitman. He’s a hooded figure, prowling a dark alleyway at night. A random attacker doesn’t phase him: Joe knocks the man down with a headbutt, as if it’s nothing, and walks away. He seems like a smooth operator, and director Lynne Ramsay encourages us to revel in his brutality, lingering on Joe’s victim as he writhes in pain on the floor, while an adrenaline-fueled synth piece in Jonny Greenwood’s score kicks in. Joe wishes he were in the kind of film where the hitman is detached and ‘cool’, where violence offers a thrilling catharsis. But by forcing us to share Joe’s warped perspective, You Were Never Really Here takes a far more honest approach to a hitman’s trauma and suicidal ideation.
Through sound and images in You Were Never Really Here, Ramsay asks us to share Joe’s subjective headspace, constantly confronting us with what it’s really like in his head: a horrific, PTSD-fueled nightmare. The present day action is regularly interrupted by sudden, visually incongruent flashes and abrupt shifts in sound which plunge us into Joe’s past. Flashbacks to his abusive childhood, his time as a soldier in war, and his later stateside police rescue missions jar with the present day action. The serene calm of the morning, as Joe wakes up, is interrupted by the blindingly bright image of the foot of a dying girl, twitching in the desert, particles of sand loudly crunching against each other. It attacks the senses without warning, leaving both us and Joe shaken.
The film often sounds like a bad headache or a hangover — but that’s how life feels for hitman Joe all the time. When we see him leave a hotel room at the beginning of the film, tired out after a job, each trudging footfall is accompanied with an ear-splitting, clashing guitar chord — as if to stress how much of an effort each step is for Joe. His detachment from the rest of the world is disorienting. Greenwood’s score is often unpleasantly discordant with the sound of the environment around Joe. When he takes a taxi to the airport, the driver’s absentminded singing, otherwise unobtrusive and harmonious, creates a dizzyingly off sound because it clashes against Greenwood’s synth.
But this is the world as Joe sees it, and not as it truly is. Joe sees death as the easiest way to numb himself to the inescapable, overwhelming sensations of everyday living. Light represents death because to Joe, death is hope. When he leans forward into a pool of light, a cut to a different angle reveals that he’s leaning towards the train tracks, contemplating jumping. The closest he comes to suicide — an attempt to drown himself in a lake — is the most gorgeous imagery in the film, but also the most surreal. The camera floats weightlessly towards the lake, and as Joe sinks into the water, his body is illuminated by a surreal shaft of light. We’re left overawed by the ethereal beauty of Joe’s suicide, able to empathise with the escape he finds in death. But by heightening the imagery to such an extent, Ramsay also calls attention to just how distorted Joe’s worldview is. This isn’t reality; rationally, we know that such extreme beauty should not be found in death.
The rest of the article is available in the ebook You Were Never Really Here: A Special Issue which can be purchased here.