you were never really here

(In our Spoiler Reviews, we take a deep dive into a new release and get to the heart of what makes it tick…and every story point is up for discussion. In this entry: Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here.)

There’s a lot going on in Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here, and we see almost none of it. And yet, we still see everything we need to see. With a shockingly sparse presentation, Ramsay has concocted a lean, mean movie that skimps on specifics yet still packs a wallop. It’s one of the most remarkable examples of less-is-more storytelling in recent memory.

Spoilers for You Were Never Really Here follow.

Joe is a troubled man. He has a very specific set of skills, and he uses them to great advantage. He lumbers through New York City like a some rough beast, all coiled muscles and clenched fists. He’s not in great shape, yet he’s imposing. He has a presence. He enters a room, and the thermostat drops; the tension mounts. One look at his pulled-back hair and unkempt beard and it’s clear: something violent is going to happen.

Something violent does happen in Lynne Ramsay’s brutal, brilliant You Were Never Really Here. In fact, several violent things happen throughout the course of the film – and yet we see almost none of them. They exist just out of our line of sight – we catch the tail end of them, as the camera cuts to the few seconds after the violence has happened, just as the bodies are about to slam into the floor.

This is part of what makes You Were Never Really Here tick, and it speaks to the nature of Ramsay’s fine-tuned machine of a film. There’s not an ounce of fat on You Were Never Really Here. At 90 minutes, Ramsay’s films coasts along smoothly, pulling Joaquin Phoenix’s Joe from one unsettling situation to the next. The story will occasionally pause for reflection – there’s a lengthy, beautiful, heart breaking, and dialogue-free sequence where Joe has to dispose of the body of his dead mother – but the narrative never stumbles. Ramsay doesn’t give it any room to stumble.

There are many things that make You Were Never Really Here one of the best films of the year. The primary element is Phoenix, who delivers yet another engrossing, fully formed performance to remind us all there’s no other actor like him working right now. But what really makes You Were Never Really Here sing is how startlingly lean the movie is. Ramsay and editor Joe Bini have cut the film down to its bare bones. There are times when it feels as if huge chunks of plot have been surgically excised from the film. And yet, You Were Never Really Here never suffers because of this. This isn’t some hack-job – a film chopped up by the studio in desperate attempt to salvage something disastrous. Instead, this is the stunning design of You Were Never Really Here. Here, less is more. Hell, here, less is everything.

you were never really here joaquin phoenix

Violence Without Violence

The story, adapted from the novella by Jonathan Ames, has shades of The Searchers; shades of Taxi Driver; shades of Clean, Shaven; shades of even Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai. Joe makes his living saving missing children while dolling out bursts of violence. Before a job, he purchases a hammer, stalks his prey, waits endless hours, and then acts. He has no qualms about killing; he brings his hammer down onto the skull of anyone in his way in an almost casual manner.

Ames’s novella gives us some background – Joe is both a former soldier and a former FBI agent there. But Ramsay is more abstract in her approach. The cut of the film that played at Cannes had a few more flashbacks to Joe’s life as a soldier, but the film as it exists now treats Joe’s past almost like a dream. There are flashes of Joe’s military time – filmed in extreme close-ups, with shots of sand, and sun, and ever-looming death. The seemingly charitable act of handing over a candy bar to a child results in a sudden burst of violence. These are haunting, haunted images – for Joe, and for us.

Joe’s latest job involves rescuing a politician’s underage daughter (Ekaterina Samsonov). She’s been stashed away in an ordinary-looking brownstone which doubles as a brothel for underage girls. To Joe, this is just another job. It starts off without a hitch – Joe moves from one corner of the brownstone to the next, putting his hammer to use. Ramsay shoots this through CCTV footage – security cams are all over the house, and they’re capturing Joe at work. It’s here where it becomes clear that despite You Were Never Really Here’s inherently violent nature, Ramsay’s approach to the violence is deliberately restrained.

“There was a decision not to show the violence,” said editor Joe Bini. “At first, the screenplay was pretty graphically violent, and it became more and more clear that this was not the way we would want it to go.” This isn’t Ramsay playing it safe – this is Ramsay denying a certain catharsis. Because, deep down, we want Joe to hurt the people he hurts. And yet, Ramsay keeps it always just out of frame. She wants us to question that bloodlust; to turn it inward, and ask just what it is we’re looking for here. At the same time, not showing the violence somehow makes it all the more brutal. Without witnessing the bloody acts, we’re forced to conjure them up in our minds. We’re witnessing violence without violence. 

Joe rescues the girl, named Nina, and that’s when things start to go very wrong. Nina’s father turns up dead – an apparent suicide. Corrupt cops show up, steal the girl away, and nearly kill Joe. From here, Joe has a choice – he can walk away, or he can track down whomever has Nina, and make them suffer. You can probably guess which option he picks.

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