The Transcendence of Pulp and The Art of Empathy in You Were Never Really Here
“When trust is lost, traumatized people feel that they belong more to the dead than the living.”
-Judith Herman, Trauma and Recovery
“…10, 9, 8, 7, 6…”
A pulp noir in which a teenage girl in danger is the hero with agency, and the film’s brooding, brutal protagonist is in need of rescue.
“Stand up straight. Stand up. Only fucking pussy little girls slouch.”
A conspiracy film that eschews exposition and knotted, complex plotting.
“You must do better. YOU MUST DO BETTER. Say it.”
A thriller in which empathy—rather than vengeance or righteous bloodletting—is the film’s magnetic north.
“I must do better, sir.”
“I thought I was making this pulpy b-noir action movie,” You Were Never Really Here writer/director Lynne Ramsay saidduring a recent Q&A. “And then I did what I always do, which is actually make a character study.”
“…5, 4, 3, 2, 1.”
~ ~ ~
Haunting and luminously textured, the haptic expressionism of You Were Never Really Here violently disrupts the pulp tropes that underpin the damaged-man-saves-helpless-girl movie. It disorders the senses of the viewer while subverting the expectations and requirements of the genre. It strips away expected convention and cliché until all that remains is a portrait both dazzling and harrowing, depicting not through dialogue or plot but via overwhelming cinematic sensation the lives of wounded human beings, the cycles of trauma that ensnare them, and the empathy required to set them free.
Reducing plot and exposition to a bare minimum, Ramsay creates a dreamlike space for this 89-minute synesthete vision of suffering and salvation to honeycomb around Jonathan Ames’ thrilling crime novella. The film evolves beyond its origins as a genre exercise and into an experience in which the sensorial assault of its characters’ traumatized inner worlds suffuses the skeletal narrative with jagged, discordant beauty.
Further, as Ramsay fragments and undermines genre tropes with her compassionate emphasis upon characterization over plot and dialogue, so too do the film’s characters use that same deeply-felt empathy and understanding to break the cruel cycles of exploitation and abuse that they’re trapped within. The film is interwoven with startling care and kindness on behalf of the abused, consistently breaking both audience expectations of a gritty noir tale and the chains of brutality that bind these characters within it.
~ ~ ~
You Were Never Really Here forces us to confront the aftermaths of traumatic events rather than the events themselves. It assaults the scaffolding we anticipate from a “pulpy b-noir action movie” about Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), a hired gun who wields his own trauma like a weapon in order to rescue children from sex trafficking rings. There is no opening action set piece, no expository voiceover. Gone is the detail-rich backstory of Jonathan Ames’ powerful novella, the minutely-traced psychological underpinnings that drive Joe’s death wish (“It’s alright,” he muses to himself in the novella, “you can go, you were never really here”).
What remains are the jarring shards of Joe’s memory that cut into the film, a kinesthetic accretion of Tom Townend’s marbled, beautiful photography and Jonny Greenwood’s career-best score of sinuous throbs and rhythmically atonal strings, all roiling together to form an experiential portrait of a man drowning in posttraumatic stress:
A dead child lying outside a U.S. military base in the Middle East. Flashlight-illuminated corpses of sex-trafficked women found suffocated in a boxcar. A child (Joe) and his mother hiding from the violent, hammer-wielding Monster of a father and a husband who rules their household. Joe as an adult, the sleek haze of a plastic bag wrapped around his head, a ritual suffocation of the senses, of these memories of the dead, of the voice of his now-dead father telling him to stand up straight, and of his own childlike voice counting down the seconds until the abuse is over.
In that whirlpool, we sense enough to grasp elements of the following: Joe is ex-military, ex-FBI, and a victim of child abuse. He is capable. He is dangerous. He is crumbling.
~ ~ ~
The film unfurls slowly, with scene after quietly gentle scene of Joe sharing a home with his unnamed and loving mother (Judith Roberts). Together, these former victims of abuse live a quiet life, and most of the film’s first half-hour is given over to Joe kindly tucking her in at night, or cleaning her torrents of spilled bathwater as early dementia disassembles her mind, or sweetly singing with her as they wash silverware.
But there is a bone-deep sadness that permeates this house and its unchanging routines. These are lives stunted by the brutal violence visited upon them decades earlier, cycles of abuse that have trapped them in time (Joe, checking expiration dates in the fridge: “This cream cheese is from 1972”). This is a family unit imprisoned by a lattice of scar tissue both physical and emotional. Joe and his mother belong to the dead man who once tortured them, and these domestic scenes are jolted by repeated memories of the Monster stalking the house with a hammer, Joe’s bloodied mother hiding beneath the kitchen table, and young Joe hiding in his closet, wrapping his head in plastic.
Yet no matter how destabilizing his PTSD becomes, the suicide he longs for is not an option for Joe, not as long as his mother is alive and dependent upon him. His body, a bloated ruin of fallen muscular grace crisscrossed with the flesh-puffed scarring of his past, cannot be put to rest as long as she needs him. His compassion, and the strength of his kindness for her, is too powerful.
And so for Joe there is the solace of the plastic bag, and there is the talismanic power of the hammer.
“The first principle of recovery is empowerment of the survivor. She must be the author and arbiter of her own recovery…No intervention that takes power away from the survivor can possibly foster her recovery, no matter how much it appears to be in her immediate best interest.”
-Judith Herman, Trauma and Recovery
Joe’s handler, McCleary (John Doman), cedes Joe mercenary work from his private security firm. He also offers one of the film’s two instances of concrete exposition: Nina Votto (Ekaterina Samsonov), the teenage daughter of a state senator running on the governor’s ticket, has gone missing. Senator Votto has received an anonymous text with an address indicating she has been kidnapped by a sex-trafficking ring.
Ramsay’s screenplay allows for this thin thread of information, but it does so within a scene in which equal screen time is given to Joe’s search for a green jelly bean in McCleary’s candy bowl. “There’s no green ones. I like green,” he mumbles, before rapturously declaring “I found a green one” as Townend’s camera focuses on the jelly bean squishing between his fingers like an emerald planet collapsing within its own gravity well. The information dump is expediently treated as a kind of background hum, with Ramsay’s focus fixed on Joe and his disintegrating perception of the world.
~ ~ ~
The ghostly whorls and blurs of black-and-white CCTV security footage document Joe’s retrieval of Nina, the film denying us a frenetic sequence of balletic choreography and gunplay. Instead, we watch footage cycling from the brothel’s multiple security cams while Joe stalks the hallways, wielding a hammer, just like his father. Joe beats a rapist bloody, as a little girl—not Nina—drifts out of the man’s room and down a hall.
No glorious bloodbath. No false sense of vicarious recompense for the audience. Instead of celebrating this vile man’s death, Ramsay highlights the fractured, monochrome tragedy of his victim—a rapist was stopped, but the consequences and trauma of his actions render this child a gray, digital ghost, left to anonymously haunt the hallways of this evil place.
~ ~ ~
Joe finds Nina and takes her from the site of her abuse, but does not save her from her trauma, nor her Monster. Together, they wait in a motel room for Senator Votto. Joe shows her more warmth than he does any character in the film besides his mother—they are both victims of the whims of monstrous men. Theirs is a bond so many others in the world of the living cannot understand. Yet her pupils remain dilated by the drugs her keepers had numbed her with; her actions remain blunted. Her memories of the horror are intact. The men who abused her still free. Her mind, and her heart, are still caged. This is not a rescue from her hell, only a relocation within it.
And it does not last long. In 10 economic, kaleidoscopically violent minutes, Ramsay savagely pulls the rug out from under her characters and the audience: Senator Votto is dead, having leapt (or been pushed) from a hotel rooftop. Two cops on the take re-kidnap Nina and fire a bullet through Joe’s cheek before he escapes. McCleary has been tortured to death for information on Joe. Two hitmen are sent to Joe’s house, to his mother.
Joe arrives to find her body, kill one hitman, and mortally wound another. It’s here that the themes and aesthetic of You Were Never Really Here knot into a cohesive whole as the film’s subversion of genre expectations melds with the equally subversive empathy of its characters.
A hitman lies on Joe’s floor, bleeding to death, and provides the second and final exposition drop of the film: New York’s Governor Williams orchestrated Nina’s kidnapping and re-kidnapping (“She’s his favorite. He trades them.”). Senator Votto knew and eventually wanted out (“He was always crying.”). Yet in a blackly comic, exposition-allergic stroke, Ramsay buries this conversation between a swollen-faced Joe (already portrayed by one of our most marble-mouthed actors) and a man gurgling in his death throes, skating so close to verbal incomprehensibility that a first-time viewer may not even understand the details, and is left simply with a feeling: Nina has been exploited and taken by men in positions of great power.
The film then reveals that its map to potential salvation for Joe lies not on a path of murderous vengeance, but in possessing that which the Monsters do not: Humanity. Just as Ramsay subverted the Big Conspiracy Reveal, so too does Joe surprise us. As the kitchen radio hums out the ‘70s pop ballad “I’ve Never Been to Me” (a song about two very different women empathizing with one another’s plight), Joe lays beside the hitman, who has begun to sing along in his final moments. In time, Joe even sings with him. When the dying man extends a bloody hand, Joe holds it tight.
It’s a moment so bracingly intimate that audiences have laughed when it occurs, shocked by the unexpected level of tenderness on display. Yet once again it is a scene in which the film and the characters in it transcend the trappings of their origins and our expectations. As Ramsay told Elvis Mitchell in an interview for The Treatment, “the song, and the holding the hands…were more important than any information.”
“Recovery unfolds in three stages. The central task of the first stage is the establishment of safety. The central task of the second stage is remembrance and mourning. The central focus of the third stage is reconnection with ordinary life.”
-Judith Herman, Trauma and Recovery
In Ames’ novella, Joe wraps his mother in trash bags before dropping her body in the Hudson River. “He watched her make a dimple in the water, float a moment, and then sink. It was the most beautiful funeral he could think to give her.” From there, Joe plots an all-out assault on the men behind the conspiracy. The novella ends with him crushing one more skull with a hammer before leaving NYC to find Nina and kill the rest who are responsible. Nina isn’t seen again in the novella; it’s only noted that her abusers have hidden her in another city.
Ramsay takes a wildly divergent path. Joe’s funeral for his mother becomes the film’s dazzlingly elegiac centerpiece, a heartbreaking oasis of golden-hued sunshine amidst Here’s cold urban grime as Joe carries his mother’s body into the river. His pockets are packed tight with heavy stones, and the water takes Joe and his mother into a quiet dark that reaches far beyond what any bag over his head could provide.
Rather than launch into the novella’s exhilarating third act of skull-splitting retribution, Joe chooses to finally end his pain. Slipping beneath the surface and releasing his mother, Joe hovers between the abyss below and the murky, rippling light above. There he has a vision of Nina, drifting deeper and deeper into the darkness, counting down the seconds of her life with him. Reminded of a pain that exists beyond his own, Joe sees his life as beyond saving—but perhaps hers is not. And as he empties the stones from his pockets and breaks for the surface, his vision of Nina does, too.
~ ~ ~
As Joe marches out of the woods, soaking wet, eyes burning, the nightmare stomp of his ground-crunching footsteps explode with speaker-trembling volume. Vengeance is finally upon us. It will be Joe’s, and ours. The release is coming.
But it never does. The catharsis is stemmed by the throat-slit dead body of Governor Williams, lying in a pool of blood in a bedroom of the governor’s mansion. Joe may have hammered the mansion’s security force into submission, but he could not kill Nina’s Monster. Someone else has put an end to the horror. Confounding, wordless shock sends Joe reeling.
As he staggers through the mansion, his finally-broken mind refracts the place into an Overlook Hotel timewarp of his nightmare past—the mother, the Monster, and the boy he was all haunt him here—before he discovers Nina sitting at a dining table, stoned and in shock, a bloody straight razor next to her plate. Nina, who had the agency to literally carve her way out of hell. Nina, who did what Joe never could.
“It’s OK, Joe,” she whispers as he clings to her and cries. “It’s OK.”
No cathartic final battle, no gloriously suicidal sacrifice. You Were Never Really Here does not leverage Nina’s tragedy for Joe’s redemption. She saves herself, and he bears witness.
~ ~ ~
Later, in a diner, Joe and Nina sit across from one another in stunned silence. They ask each other where they go from here. Neither has an answer. Joe’s face is a ragged torment of swollen, gunshot pain, and he silently weeps. His mission accomplished, he takes out a gun and blows out the back of his head, a geyser of blood and matter dotting the restaurant.
Voices drift in around him…but not the voice of the Monster, nor the child’s voice counting down. Just the everyday conversations of people around them, the sound of ordinary life. Nina reaches across the table and places a gentle hand upon his head. “Hey, Joe, wake up.”
Joe lifts his head from the suicidal daydream like a slow resurrection. Nina’s eyes appear unclouded for the first time, and she smiles. “Let’s go. It’s a beautiful day.”
Joe is not whole, nor healed. The journey out of the abyss will be a lifelong one for them both. But Joe’s connection with Nina, her compassion and his acceptance of it, allow them to share a smile. Together, they will survive. Just as Lynne Ramsay subversively repurposed You Were Never Really Here’s entertaining pulp roots into to a transcendent work of art by emphasizing compassion, beauty, and character, so too have these victims of failed fathers broken their cycles of violence and risen above their pain with a mutual empathy.
Joe answers. “It is a beautiful day.”
Their future is uncertain. They are not healed. But they no longer belong to their fathers, to the Governor, to the Monsters, to the dead. They are together. They are in the world of the living. They are, finally, here.