You Were Never Really Here (2017)

You Were Never Really Here first published by RealCrime Magazine

If You Were Never Really Here represents a complex living portrait of its protagonist Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), then right from the opening scene, in which we glimpse him attempting to suffocate himself with a plastic bag, our hero is at least partly keen for his own story to end.  This muttering bear of a man with a deeply traumatic past and an abiding death wish is marked by apparent contradictions: an Afghanistan War vet brutal in executing the urban rescues and interventions for which he is hired, yet tender and loving towards the elderly mother (Judith Roberts) who is also his lifeline, giving him a reason not to die.

Although adapted by Lynne Ramsay (Ratcatcher, We Need To Talk About Kevin) from Jonathan Ames 2013 short story, You Were Never Really Here is also haunted by the spectre of two films. When his mother is in the bathroom, Joe play-acts the stabbing motions and violin screeches from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), as though he were a Norman Bates figure – yet this self-conscious allusion comes bathed in irony, given that Joe, far from having a domineering mother, is, along with her, a survivor of abuse from his father – shown in a series of impressionistic flashbacks. As an ex-soldier and a professional man of violence, Joe may seem to embody the very worst aspects of institutional patriarchy, but he is also its victim, and desperate to find a redemptive escape from its baleful influence. Joe specialises in rescuing children, and his latest assignment sees him trying to extract Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), the young daughter of a Senator, from a paedophile ring. The New York setting, the child prostitution, the political paranoia and the centrality of an unhinged veteran all point to Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) as a key intertext – and yet Joe is merely interceding on behalf of someone who will prove quite capable of saving herself as well as him.

Joe’s experiences of damaged childhood, whether from his own boyhood or from his witnessing of local suffering in Afghanistan, keep recurring and repeating themselves in a seemingly ineluctable pattern that is as much a result of domestic scarring as of military PTSD – and yet Nina, with her similar biography, might just be able to show him the way to a future where he can once again enjoy the ordinary beauty of everyday experience.

Normally the mechanics of crime would be crucial to a story like this, but Ramsay decentres genre and reduces the conspiracy-and-corruption plotting to a murky background of toxic masculinity in which Joe has long been drowning, and from which he constantly struggles to resurface. The result is a disorienting, dreamy take on the revenge thriller, with suicide an ever-present possibility and recovery (in every sense) the near unattainable goal of the mission.

© Anton Bitel