The plot description for You Were Never Really Here suggests a familiar type or action movie, one starring Charles Bronson or maybe Liam Neeson: working as a hired gun who rescues exploited young girls and punishes their kidnappers, ex-soldier/FBI agent Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) gets entangled in a conspiracy involving powerful politicians. Reading that synopsis, audiences would be forgiven for expecting something fun and stylish, in which the good guy is tough but virtuous, the girls beautiful and weak, and the bad guys meet a savage, but deserved, end.
You Were Never Really Here is not that movie. Adapting a novel by Jonathan Ames, director Lynn Ramsay (We Need to Talk About Kevin), hits all the genre points, but she presents them in a manner more abstract, more disturbing – and, surprisingly, more human – than standard Hollywood stuff.
Countless films have been made about heroes like Joe, strong and capable, willing to do bad things for the overall good. And we do see Joe beating assailants or planning and executing his missions, as we would John Wick or Jack Reacher. But Phoenix plays the most haunted version of this archetype that I’ve ever seen, a man on the verge of breakdown, whether he’s gently caring for his elderly mother (Judith Roberts) or pummeling a kidnapper with a hammer.
Joe differs from other heroes not because of his brutality, but because of his humanity. When horrible violence occurs — and it certainly does occur — Ramsay never ignores it, but she doesn’t indulge in it, either. More interested in people than punching, her camera focuses on the damage done to both hero and villain, lingering over the welts and scars covering Joe’s body. Ramsay shoots fight scenes either from a remove, as in a sequence viewed only through black and white security cam footage, or so tightly close on grappling men that it’s impossible to tell if they’re fighting or hugging.
Ramsay takes an even greater interest in Joe’s mental scares, using quick cuts or bits of dialogue (often with no clear speaker or meaning), to illustrate his trauma. Sometimes, the faces of women Joe failed to save explode onto the screen; other times, they appear on young women enjoying a night on the town. Ramsay interjects these moments with jarring flashbacks to Joe’s own childhood, when he and his mother were abused by his father, a military man who constantly berated Joe’s masculinity.
More than Taken or Death Wish, this movie recalls Martin Scorsese’s 1976 classic Taxi Driver, in which Robert DeNiro plays a troubled outsider who fantasizes about viciously saving a young prostitute. But the violence here isn’t in Joe’s head – it’s in ours. As its title suggests, there’s something false about You Were Never Really Here. It knows that we’ve seen stories about tough guys saving helpless girls, and it uses its own stock narrative to underscore sexism in not only action flicks, but across popular culture. Pop songs drift in and out of the soundtrack, particularly Rosie and the Original’s 1960 ballad “Angel Baby,” a song of desire sang by a 15-year-old girl and distributed by older men. These moments, combined with the clips of Joe’s father questioning his manhood, beat strict gender roles into the characters’ heads.
The familiarity of You Were Never Really Here isn’t just in its plot, but in the way it imagines good men as protectors of women, who become victims of bad men. The movie knows that these stories perpetuate ideas about masculinity and femininity, harmful to men and women alike, and it projects that damage in ways both frightening and surreal.