From Ratcatcher to We Need to Talk About Kevin, director Lynne Ramsay’s oeuvre has been defined, for the most part, by continuous studies of tragedy and trauma. You Were Never Really Here, her latest film which cleaned up this year at Cannes, does not stray far from this theme. Here is, like Ramsay’s other works, an exploration of how humans react to situations which can only, ineloquently, be described as really fucked up.
In terms of plot, Here can be summed up as Pizzagate: the movie, and this observation is not incorrect — the movie, on a surface level, does fit with the cultural sensibilities of the alt-right: a tortured, ex-military and FBI, white male protagonist lives with his mother and does his best to rid the world of ‘degeneracy’ by violently taking down a conspiracy to cover up a child prostitution ring run by New York state senators. However, though this reading is amusing, it fails to understand what the movie seems to be really about: not a violent quest for retribution at the hands of a vigilante, but the working-out of trauma and its lasting effects. You Were Never Really Here is more Persona than it is Death Wish.
I, like many others, went into Here expecting another Blue Ruin, a tale of a man on a gory mission against those who have betrayed him, the standard affair for movies of this ilk, albeit, like Blue Ruin, with slightly more introspection and an arthouse sensibility. Instead what was presented was a grim deconstruction of the revenge-action-drama. Gone are monologues given by villains, satisfying final deaths of the big baddie, gratuitous scene of hyperreal ultraviolence. What takes their place are scenes of genuine loneliness, of flashbacks to sources of intense childhood and wartime trauma, and an overall mood of intense and overbearing hopelessness.
Though the movie is itself quite violent and not for the faint of heart, the violence never appears to be the actual focus of the film as it does in many others. Whether refracted through a broken mirror or shown through the lens of a grainy, black and white security camera, the violence Joe (played immaculately by Joaquin Phoenix) directs towards others is always mostly obscured, never quite visible, and always happening almost off-screen. Rather it is the self-inflicted harm which Joe commits that the camera really dwells on. In Here, the executions Joe facilitates become merely an extension of the violence he wreaks on his own body and the violence which was inflicted on him by his father. It is as if the killings are only a natural but irrelevant footnote to the true solipsistic violence of the film. When the camera does dwell on the violence Joe inflicts on others, it is in a moment of humanity. He lies down next to the body of a corrupt FBI agent he shot off-screen, holds his hand, and listens to the radio with him until he succumbs to the wounds Joe inflicted upon him.
Gone too is the virile and superhumanly powerful protagonist of the revenge action genre. In a scene towards the end of the movie, after discovering the corpse of the pedophile governor and realizing that the girl he was meant to save was, in the end, able to fend for herself and that he is superfluous, Joe wanders through the gubernatorial house of depravity, shirtless, bearing the marks of his childhood abuse and his military service to the world, repeating to himself his new mantra, one which you will never hear in the standard libidinal male-power-fantasy: “I’m weak.”
Joe’s motivations too seem murkier than the standard of the genre, less justified by the director than the brutality of a cop who can’t play by the rules to solve the case or a father trying to save his child. Rather Joe seems to be driven by some externalized processing of his trauma. He acts as if through the attempted salvation of corrupted childhoods, he can purify his own. And unlike other films in the genre, Here systemically denies catharsis to the viewer as it does to Joe. The main villain is killed when he gets there and there is no intonation that justice will be served: the pedophile governor is killed by Joe, the father who sold his daughter into sex-slavery has killed himself by the 30-minute mark, and the corrupt cops and FBI agents still exist within a framework which allows for their behavior. All that is left by the end of the film is for Joe to eat in a diner with the girl he saved, with the only suggestion left for him to do is “go outside,” because it’s “nice out.”
Joe is constantly tormented by his inability to protect his mother from his father, and later protect her from the men who kill her in place of him. He forces himself to relive moments of trauma relating to this perceived failure, reenacting scenes from his childhood of hiding in a closet, constantly dealing with flashbacks of his father’s fits of rage, of his father’s use of the hammer that Joe reterritorializes as the tool he will use to protect children the way he couldn’t protect himself. We, of course, know that, as a child, there was nothing Joe could do to protect his mother from his father, but trauma (at least in a psychoanalytic framework) is often impossible to reduce to the logical. Instead it must be re-lived and worked through until manageable. It is in his release of her and acceptance of her death that Joe is forced to face his trauma, as he submerges with her into the amniotic lake, his pocket laden with stones so he can drown with her. At the last minute, Joe realizes he has not yet saved the girl, and feeling his mission incomplete he has a change of heart, emptying his pockets and surfacing, alive and gasping for air. It is, however, a false hope, as when Joe makes it to the house he realizes the girl has killed her own captor and did what Joe couldn’t, both in terms of saving her and in terms of standing up to his father as a child.
You Were Never Really Here has been heralded as the “21st Century Taxi Driver,” and the Ramsay understands this parallel: Here wears the influence of Scorsese’s masterpiece on its sleeve. There is the adolescent girl forced into prostitution who the protagonist feels he must save, trauma from military service, a gory showdown, and the protagonists’ slow descent into psychosis. Though, where Taxi Driver played the role straight, though nuanced, Here attempts to subvert and deconstruct it at every possible moment.
Gone is the neon-drenched, seedy Times Square of Taxi Driver, replaced with a frigid and foreboding Brooklyn which couches danger in every brownstone. However, the difference between Here and Taxi Driver makes itself most apparent through ‘societies’’ reaction to the respective protagonists’ final explosive act of violence, or lack thereof. In Taxi Driver, Bickle becomes a folk-hero; newspaper clippings about him can be seen tacked onto the walls of his grimy apartment: though Bickle’s relationship to his relative fame is complicated, it is at least clear that the city has heard his violence and responded with adulation. In Here, the actions of Joe couldn’t make an iota of a difference to the people sitting around him. In what turns out to be a fantasy, Joe shoots himself will sitting in the booth of a kitschy diner and the dramatic action is met with no response from the patrons now covered in his blood. The waitress walks by and places the blood-stained check next to his blown-out skull, as if the pieces of cranium scattered on the table were no different from the cheap porcelain his meal was served on.
Overall You Were Never Really Here deserves its praise, at least in my opinion. It deconstructs the genre without feeling like mockery, deals with a heavy subject but provides nuance, and overall plays a glorious bait and switch with the audience that I find both successful and admirable. A movie so pessimistic that the protagonist simply staying alive is a victory and going outside on a nice day is his final reward is often never an enjoyable watch, let alone rewatch, but though Here was not a picnic to get through, I highly suspect I will come back to it more than once in the coming months.