Director: Lynne Ramsay
Writer: Lynne Ramsay
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Ekaterina Samsonov, Alex Manette, John Doman, Judith Roberts
“If only it were so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Violence/Scary Images: Violence and the threat of violence pervade the film. The bulk of it involves the main character’s use of a hammer to kill his targets, brutally and repeatedly. Many acts of violence occur just offscreen. Murder victims discovered. Characters shot, including one whose face is blown off at close range. One tortured to death before viewers arrive on the scene; another has his throat slit wide open (also before camera arrives). A theme of child abduction and forced prostitution/child rape. Underage girls are kept in a fancy brothel; one character traumatized by her captivity there.
Language/Crude Humor: Infrequent use of strong language.
Sexual Content: All sexual content in the film is related to rape/violence; see “Violence” section for more.
Drug/Alcohol Use: None.
Spiritual Content: None.
Other Negative Themes: The theme of corrupt uses of power and status permeates the film. Explores the ramifications of post-traumatic stress disorder quite explicitly.
Positive Content: After the deep darkness of the film’s journey, it ends on a note of hope and redemption.
In the arts, the realm of Hell is oftentimes depicted as a bottomless pit. This is a very profound statement. What that essentially means, in at least one sense, is that no matter how bad things might seem at the moment, there is always the possibility that it can get even worse. Often, it is those who are possessed of resentment, anger, and vengeful animosity who are most prone to carry out visions and agendas that make the situation a whole lot worse for everyone, themselves included. The histories of the French and Russian revolutions are oft-cited examples of this among philosophers, economists, and social psychologists.
I’ve found that many modern stories fail to recognize this age-old truth. Far too often have I found that the drive to do anything in order to right the wrongs of the world, including but not limited to producing even more wrongs along the way that dramatically increase suffering rather than doing anything to lessen it. Both the characters and the films themselves tend to justify this drive for “seeking justice at all costs” without a hint of irony to be found.
American economist and philosopher Thomas Sowell once wrote that “justice at all costs is not justice.” He gives as one example, a hypothetical situation of a sinking ship with 300 souls onboard and only 200 life-preservers. The ideology of “justice at all costs” would demand that everyone on the ship drown since it is logistically impossible for all to be saved. I’m quite sure that if it really came to the point, most of us would opt for the technically unjust course of action in which at least some are saved even if we agree that those who are saved are no more deserving of their lives than those who are lost. That is fundamentally what I find to be the pathological foundation to the “justice at all costs” mantra. Those who hold to this view would honestly rather that everyone have an equal amount of nothing than an unequal amount of something.
This is one of many thoughts that crossed my mind while reflecting on Lynne Ramsay’s latest film You Were Never Really Here, a methodically paced thriller that tamely but boldly deepens its examination on the soul-scarring ramifications of what pursuing justice brings upon even its heroes. Based on Jonathan Ames’ novel of the same name, the film introduces us to a man simply named Joe (a bit on-the-nose, but I’ll take it), a former FBI agent and military combatant who makes ends meet as a private gun rescuing young girls from sex trafficking rings.
The nature of Joe’s line of work is clearly one fraught with precipitous conditions. It is a path in which making powerful enemies is far too easy and good friends are all too hard to come by. Outside of his aging mother, Joe has no loved ones in his life, which is clearly done to give himself as little to lose as possible. Considering his violent case of post-traumatic stress disorder causing painful flashbacks to his unsavory childhood and military experiences, it seems unlikely that he’d function well as a family man anyway.
Ramsey opens up her drama with a stark and unremitting look at how fundamentally tragic and permeated with suffering life and reality is by default, not just that of her characters. As we go further and further into our exploration of this universal tragedy, the lights just seem to get more and more dim. The world of this film, like the actual one, is stained not only with great tragedy but with profound evil of a sort that only conscious personal agents of free will can carry out. It is an evil that no one man can defeat no matter how skilled or driven, and it’s an evil that manages to find its way into our hero’s very own bastion of community and peace in the most destructive and insidious manner possible.
What is one to do in the face of this? Most other tales of a less sophisticated quality answer this with the hero destroying any and all remnants of evil and corruption with a spectacular display of fisticuffs and firepower, with all infractions being completely resolved in a matter of two hours or less. Ramsey is not satisfied with such an indulgence, and it shows in her choice of narrative. The only other film I’ve seen from her is the 2011 thriller We Need to Talk About Kevin, a macabre wrestling with the mysteries and horrors of juvenile psychopathy that left us with more questions than answers, and responsibly so in my assessment. She’s not afraid to stare tragedy and evil square in the eye with every intent on understanding it a deeply as she feasibly can.
Furthermore, she’s not satisfied with stories in which the mark of evil is presented as little more than a superficial distinction between protagonist and antagonist. Joe is incredibly effective while disposing of attackers with ill-intent, but never are we given the simple convenience of seeing these characters under the standard “white-hat; black-hat” paradigm. Even Joe himself is aware that he isn’t being viewed by anyone as a typical square-jawed action hero, and he knows he doesn’t deserve to be. At one point after besting two opponents, killing one and mortally wounding the other, Joe lies next to his still breathing attacker, and the two half-consciously serenade themselves with a melancholy tune while one of them breathes his last. After what transpires at this point, it’s not at all a wonder why Joe feels a gripping desire to join his would-be assailant in shuffling off his mortal coil. It’s one of the film’s most sublime moments.
There is another moment soon thereafter even more transcendent. A moment initially intended as a water burial and suicide transforms into something more akin to a baptism in a spark of epiphany and renewed purpose. This I found to be the central and most valuable takeaway. There is no denying the tragedies and evils of life, and there is plenty about which to be resentful. But simply ending it doesn’t really bring any sense of closure to the tragedy, no matter how convenient, complete, and even in a way rational as it may seem. The film does manage to end in the most hopeful way its characters can manage. Perhaps “hopeful” isn’t the correct word. I think “meaningful” is more fitting. That’s how these characters answer the ugliness surrounding and penetrating them. They set themselves on something of true meaning and value that makes the suffering worth it.
In the role of Joe, Joaquin Phoenix is not in unfamiliar territory. He gave another career-defining performance as a mentally unstable war veteran six years ago in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, and the parallels don’t stop there. Both Joe and Freddie Quell fall into considerations of the transcendent nature as a result of the burden of their existential hardships. A key difference is that Freddie’s burdens were made into capital by a shrewd and charismatic cult leader played by the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and Joe’s cross was made entirely his to bear with hardly any aid from anyone, exploitative or otherwise. Oddly enough, it is Joe’s spiritual death and resurrection that holds far more genuine worth and meaning precisely because he was not provided an out from his own sorrows without realizing that the corruption and brokenness that he rightly reviles in his enemies dwell in a far more immediate capacity within himself.
In my judgment, You Were Never Really Here is precisely what Pierre Morel’s Taken should have been. The 2008 French action thriller failed in my assessment to break convention and deliver a rescue romp that rose above anything greater than grindingly generic Bond-style predictability. What’s worse about it was the lopsided bent on how its characters were portrayed. Liam Neeson’s Bryan Mills raises holy hell in search of his kidnapped daughter, even up to being completely willing to shoot a perfectly innocent and unsuspecting housewife in order to gather critical information. This is understandable to be sure, but it was profoundly irresponsible of Luc Besson and his team to simply gloss over a critical bit of significance to Mills’ character arc.
Late in Taken, Mills finds himself captured and dead to rights by his enemies. The film reveals in a candid moment of conversation that the traffickers who abducted Mills’ daughter share a key point of similarity with him in that they also have children that they love and would protect to the death. As reviewer Steven Greydanus noted, what was lacking here was an equal-but-opposite admission from the film that Mills shares a critical commonality with the villains in that he has no qualms about intentionally hurting and even killing innocent people to get what he’s after.
You Were Never Really Here treats with uncompromising reverence the ancient biblical teaching that the human heart above all is deceptive and desperately wicked and that it is so difficult–almost impossible–to understand (Jeremiah 17:9). Once Joe comes to terms with that lingering internal chaos that leaps between past, present, reality, and fantasy with remarkable agility and takes responsibility for it by pursuing something transcendently meaningful beyond himself does he find a reason to wake up the next morning.
My only serious wish is that Ramsey would have taken the time to give some vestige of similar development to Joe’s rescue mark Nina Votto (Ekaterina Samsonov). Nina suffers tragedy and evil of a sort equal or greater than that of Joe, but we’re given no hint that she is as fundamentally rattled to her core as Joe is. I understand that taking that route risked making the film overwrought and bloated, so it may be for the best for Nina to simply have her grasp on meaning well-established without a written-out arc so that she may give Joe that final pull into the light of a new day.
Rarely do action thriller films really demand anything of their audience but to simply enjoy the fireworks. It’s not surprising that Ramsey’s film here will never get the kind of widespread popular acclamation that films like Taken have received. For a movie to actually expect a viewer to come into the theater with a thinking cap on all too often is expecting too much. A movie like You Were Never Really Here deserves to be viewed and reflected upon by people from all walks, backgrounds, and perspectives. Lynne Ramsey is a remarkable talent who speaks with a tortured candor that is specific, fractured, and universal all at once. This is just the latest in what I hope is a long string of profound introspections yet to come from a woman who I think should be considered as one of the greatest filmmakers working today.
+ Arresting performances + Remarkable character study of fundamentally broken souls + Sublime cinematography + Powerful redemptive arc
- More analysis of certain characters would have been appreciated
The Bottom Line
In this pit of ever increasing malice and corruption beats a powerful heart yearning for redemption and meaning. Light shines best in the dark, and it shines powerfully here. Highly recommended.