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, 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, Ramsay asks us to share Joe’s subjective headspace, constantly confronting us with what it’s really like in his head: a horrific, PTSD-fuelled nightmare.
Terence Davies’ The Deep Blue Sea is another film, told from the perspective of an unreliable narrator, that prompts us to question the way she sees the world. Similarly, Julia Ducournau’s Raw is a completely different film if seen through the eyes of protagonist Justine’s sister. Luca Guadagnino is particularly adept at playing with perspective: he does so in his questioning of the projected personas of Armie Hammer’s Oliver in Call Me by Your Name and Dakota Johnson’s Penny in A Bigger Splash.