You Were Never Really Here is a harrowing evocation of life as a trauma survivor. What’s particularly harrowing is that the survivor in question—a ghostly, reclusive war vet named Joe (Joaquin Phoenix)—tries to exorcise his own demons by extricating others from traumatic situations.
Specifically, Joe tracks down missing girls who are victims of sex trafficking. He rescues them and then bloodily, brutally murders their abductors and abusers. That last part is why Joe moves about like a ghost—he works for cash outside of the rule of law, providing his clients with the promise of both rescue and execution (it’s as if Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle went semi-legit).
It takes awhile for us to figure out that this is Joe’s job. Writer-director Lynne Ramsay (Ratcatcher, Morvern Callar, We Need to Talk About Kevin), adapting a book by Jonathan Ames, opens the movie amidst the final, oblique moments of his most recent assignment. We see a bloody hammer, the photo of a young girl, and other details that suggest we’re in a sketchy hotel room. Woven in between this seemingly random imagery are flitting flashbacks that take us into Joe’s head—some of which are explained later in the film, others of which are left to linger, horribly, at the edge of our imagination. Eventually, some 20 minutes in and after Joe has returned to the humble home he shares with his aging mother (Judith Roberts), we learn that Joe is not, in fact, a serial killer but a ruthless and specific sort of vigilante.
Formally, You Were Never Really Here is an intricate amalgamation of impressionistic imagery, haunting sound design, and claustrophobic camerawork, all geared toward evoking Joe’s deranged, damaged point of view. Disturbing visual motifs—a child’s foot twitching in the sand, a boy hiding in a closet—invade the movie like sudden seizures. What Ramsay captures from the inside, Phoenix depicts externally, giving Joe vacant but violent eyes, as well as a physique that is at once imposing and puffy. He’s the sort of guy you cross the street to avoid, and certainly not the kind you try to mug, as one unfortunate soul discovers during the movie’s opening sequence.
You Were Never Really Here becomes a thriller of sorts about halfway in, when Joe’s latest client, a senator whose daughter is missing, proves to be part of an abhorrent conspiracy. (You think you despise politicians now? Wait until you see this movie.) Ultimately, though, You Were Never Really Here is concerned with its main character’s mental state more than its surface narrative. Does the righteous vengeance Joe pursues help him process his own trauma, or is it causing his mental wounds to fester? An answer is suggested by the fact that in between jobs we rarely see Joe at peace; more likely he’s holding a plastic bag over his head or dangling a knife over his eye as he lays on a bed—awful gestures of self-harm.
Suffice it to say, You Were Never Really Here is a rough go. I admired its craft and wouldn’t call it exploitative (despite the hammer-as-weapon-of-revenge motif borrowed from Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy). Yet I can’t say I’ll ever want to watch it again, or think about some of its more stomach-churning subject matter any longer than it takes to write this review. Of course, that’s on me more than You Were Never Really Here—and perhaps a testament to its effectiveness as a chronicle of trauma, both experienced and remembered.