never really here movie

No Catharsis

In the studio version of this film, there would be more time devoted to both Joe’s search for the missing girl, and his plans for revenge. Joe would be methodical, and we’d get to see every detail of his plan down to the letter. He might even have some sort of sidekick character – someone he can talk to and bounce ideas (and plot details) off of. We might have even been saddled with a voice over narration, as Joe talks us through his uneasy mind.

But Ramsay doesn’t go for any of that. Instead, she dishes out only the bare minimum. And yet, we know everything we need to know. We know Joe is troubled because Bini’s editing, the cinematography from Thomas Townend, and, most important of all, the sound design courtesy of Paul Davies, gives us all the insight into Joe we need. We’re seeing a good portion of the film through Joe’s eyes, and as a result, the world looks and sounds harsh – bursts of blinding light coupled with a monstrous roaring noise. It’s the sound of the city, but it’s also the sound of some sort of rough, abysmal tide crashing somewhere within Joe’s head. Davies’ sound design filters in breaking glass, jarring screeches, and the noise of Phoenix muttering unintelligibly to himself. Nothing is really being said with all this, yet we’re being given a full picture of Joe as a result.

The most surprising use of Ramsay’s sparse storytelling method comes near the conclusion of You Were Never Really Here. Joe has finally tracked down the man who is holding the girl prisoner. The man who has orchestrated all of the pain and suffering that’s befallen Joe for most of the movie. Like the missing girl’s father, this man is also a politician – a governor, played by Alessandro Nivola.  

This character is, in a sense, the film’s main antagonist. The bad guy whom Joe has to now face off against. And what do we learn about this character?

Nothing.

In fact, Nivola doesn’t even have a single line in the film. Yet again, Ramsay and editor Joe Bini are telling us everything we need to know about this character – and we can tell without ever hearing a word he says that he’s vile. Ramsay introduces him through a long POV shot – we’re in Joe’s headspace, watching as the Governor strolls from his campaign headquarters, flanked by armed guards. Just the way Nivola carries himself, cocksure and smug, is enough to make your bile rise.

Later, Ramsay shows Nivola’s character delicately fingering photos of his captive when she was even younger. It’s a repulsive, silent sequence – we’re told that Nina is his “favorite” of the numerous underage girls he’s sexually abused, and she apparently has been for quite some time, even when she was much younger.

never really here poster

A Beautiful Day

The stage is set for Joe to enact bloody vengeance. He stalks through the Governor’s mansion, laying waste to the armed guards. Again, Ramsay keeps this off screen – we only see the feet of dead men sticking out from doorways, their bodies blocked by whatever object they happened to fall behind after Joe smashed their heads in. Joe finally reaches the Governor.

And the Governor is already dead.

His throat is ripped open, and he lays, eyes gazing blankly up at Joe – and at nothing. Again, Ramsay has denied us the violent catharsis. “The scene towards the end of the film, where he goes to the governor’s mansion expecting answers, and he finds the guy dead, so he can’t satisfy his desires… that scene is a mirror scene for both him and the audience,” said Bini. “You’re not satisfied. You never get the satisfaction of seeing the violence you think you’re going to see or getting the answers you think you’re going to get. That whole feeling is what keeps you watching the film…you keep watching because you’re expecting some kind of satisfaction that never happens.”

By the time You Were Never Really Here ends, Joe is still a broken man. He’s rescued Nina, and she offers up a smattering of hope. “It’s a beautiful day,” she says, looking out at the sunshine. Joe agrees that it is, indeed, a beautiful day. But there’s the lingering sense that while the body count has climbed, and while Nina is safe, for now, there’s still unfinished business lurking. Lingering. Waiting for a moment that will never come.

You might think this is all the result of constant chopping. That somewhere, there’s a three hour cut of You Were Never Really Here that adds all the missing pieces back in. But that’s not the case. “There was never a long cut of the film,” said Bini. “It just didn’t support that — didn’t need to support it. But what’s marvelous about Lynne’s films is, unlike some filmmakers, the order of the imagery actually matters. The difference between “he puts the milk glass down now” as opposed to “he puts the milk glass down later” is huge. We never felt we had to make it shorter. We just had to get it right, and so that’s what we did in the last leg of it.”

What makes You Were Never Really Here one of the best movies of the year is not what it shows us, but what it doesn’t show us. Here is a film that has the nerve to trust us to fill in the blanks; to mold the story into shape on our own. It’s rare to see a film have such faith in its audience. And it’s worth celebrating. This approach is also an ingenious way to put us within the fractured headspace of Joe. Joe’s mind is frequently swimming with toxicity; his thoughts are shattered, and the story unfolding is shattered as a result. 

In less skilled hands, You Were Never Really Here’s deliberately vague storytelling might be a weakness. It might even come across as maddening. Yet it never does here. We are given all the pieces we need to put a puzzle together ourselves. We may not like what we see when that puzzle is finally assembled, but it is assembled none the less. In this sense, You Were Never Really Here is visual storytelling at its finest. No long speeches, no lengthy exposition, no on-the-nose dialogue is needed to move us from point A to point B. Instead, Ramsay relies on the viewer to make the journey themselves. To follow Joe down dark, dangerous alleyways and see where it all leads.

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