In this edition of Shadowproof’s weekly member newsletter, we highlight Scottish filmmaker Lynne Ramsay’s film, “You Were Never Really Here,” starring Joaquin Phoenix, which was released in April.
Joe (Phoenix), an Afghanistan War veteran, works as a hitman while taking care of his elderly mother. He is offered a job that involves rescuing a New York senator’s missing 13 year-old daughter from a child sex trafficking ring.
If this sounds like a brutal it’s-already-been-done-before kind of story, Ramsay manages to transform the story, which is inspired by a book, into one that does not glorify violence.
“In American films, you see very expressive violence all the time,” Ramsay told the Guardian. “Everything on a plate. I wanted to approach it in a different way, to make it exciting and intense but not, you know, sexy and cool.”
Phoenix’s character uses a hammer to carry out his jobs, but as Ramsay said, there is no “ballet to it.” It is an anti-genre film.
Critics have labeled “You Were Never Really Here” a modern-day “Taxi Driver” (1976). It does bear several similarities to the classic film but making a remake of that film was never Ramsay’s intention.
What makes the film so gripping is how it functions as a meditation on violence and the way it engulfs us all.
Joe survived an abusive childhood. He joined the U.S. military, where he was asked to kill and commit acts that have left a pain that he carries everywhere with him. He returned to the United States and brought the war home with him. He suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, like many veterans, and all he can do to manage it is keep killing. But no matter how many girls he saves from predators, it does not heal the wounds.
Through jump cuts, the rapid amplification of music to add intensity, and shots that convey isolation, we see Joe playing out scenarios for suicide on a daily basis.
Ramsay employs disjointed edits that are jarring as Joe arrives at location to kill his next targets. Music and sound effects do not align, and it seems to show the way in which violence disrupts a setting. But there also is an eeriness to a sequence where Joe has brought violence to a location already beget by violence.
The world around Joe does not care or is completely oblivious to the violence engulfing Joe. They are desensitized to the everyday depravity. For example, Ramsay shows this detachment when a group of young people ask him to take their photo. It torments him to see them happy and at peace.
As Joe is drawn deeper into a web of political corruption, he does not know what to do. The thing that was easy—killing bad people and rescuing girls—results in a descent deeper into violence.
Nina Votto (Ekaterina Samsonov), the 13 year-old daughter Joe is sent to rescue, has gone through a horrific experience. Yet, Nina also seems to be someone who knows abuse and violence all too well. This is not the first time that she has been violated.
Joe and Nina do not merely feel dehumanized. They feel invisible. Society would press onward if they were gone tomorrow, like nothing happened, and never reflect on their lives. Instead, they would cynically accept their deaths—whether by murder or suicide—as simply the way of the world.