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. 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.'What it’s really like in Joe's head: a horrific, PTSD-fuelled nightmare.'Click To Tweet
The film often sounds like a bad headache or a hangover — but that’s how life feels for 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.'The film often sounds like a bad headache or a hangover — but that’s how life feels for Joe all the time.'Click To Tweet
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.
Joe has difficulty separating his vision of the world from reality. He wants to be a tragic hero like Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle, who suffers from PTSD, but sacrifices himself to save a young girl. Joe keeps himself going with the notion that he is also important, noble, and necessary to the lives of those around him. But Ramsay draws our attention to the fact that this is a construct. Early on, she shows Joe read a book in bed, rip out a page, and turn back to the previous one. It’s an attempt to feel in control — to alter a narrative that’s not his own. The notion that the people around him need him to survive is what tethers him to life: he doesn’t kill himself because he feels a responsibility to look after his aging mother (Judith Roberts) and to save teenage Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), who he has been tasked to rescue from sex traffickers. But ultimately, Joe’s breakdown is triggered by the realisation that he wasn’t necessary for either of them to survive: Nina kills her captor and saves herself, and Joe’s mother is killed because Joe’s job put her in peril.
Our issue delves into all the technical elements that are so vital to immersing us in Joe’s headspace — but only Seventh Row members can read our interview with sound designer Paul Davies. Become a member now and you’ll also gain access to free eBooks and our entire back catalogue of content.
Ramsay repeatedly suggests that Joe needs these women far more than they need him. His mother’s home is a safe haven away from the rest of the world: the sound of the street doesn’t seep in; Ramsay holds back in patient wide shots; scenes play out in single takes. Joe is able to simply exist, without the threat of outside forces and with fewer aggravating internal ones. He cleans up the bathroom after his mother floods it, makes her food, teases her, and sings with her as they polish cutlery together. It’s a caring, sweet, and nurturing relationship that offers Joe a peaceful distraction from his own mind.'Ramsay suggests that Joe needs these women far more than they need him.'Click To Tweet
Ramsay’s most explicit reminder that there’s a world outside of Joe’s mind is in the brief moments when she removes us from Joe’s headspace and enters Nina’s. When Joe first saves Nina from the brothel where she’s being kept, we see her face, turned away from Joe, staring out of the car window as they drive away. Greenwood’s score suddenly brightens and incorporates human sounds — hands clapping — for the first time. There’s still life in Nina. She wipes her hand against the glass, entranced by the sight of the city, finding beauty in it that Joe cannot. Ramsay transports us into the mind of a self-sufficient teenage girl who is unhindered by Joe’s masculine narcissism and self-suppression.'In his mother's house, Joe is able to simply exist, without the threat of outside forces and with fewer aggravating internal ones.'Click To Tweet
Only when Joe realises that nobody needs him in order to survive, and opens himself up to Nina’s perspective, is he able to find a path to healing. Both he and Nina are victims of trauma who can offer each other sympathy and understanding. Joe realises that he must find hope in a relationship where he is not in a position of power, but receiving comfort as well as giving it. He sits with Nina at a diner at the end of the film, and when she briefly walks away from their table, Joe fantasises about commiting suicide. He’s left in despair at the thought that she doesn’t depend on him — she could leave at any time. But Nina comes back, and suggests they go somewhere together because “it’s a beautiful day”. That takes him aback. His agreement seems to come as a surprise, even to him. He is only able to notice the beauty of the everyday world when he allows himself to see it through someone else’s eyes.
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.