By Taylor Thornburg
Lynne Ramsey’s You Were Never Really Here follows the character Joe, as portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix, navigating a disjointed labyrinth of cause, consequence, and metaphor for trauma. Literally, Joe earns his living retrieving victims of human trafficking. He violently destroys the traffickers as time and opportunity permits.
After the film briefly introduces the main character and his craft, an assignment from a senator in Joe’s home state sets the story in motion: retrieve his daughter, the child Nina (played by Ekaterina Samsonov) who has been abducted by a clandestine pedophile ring, and badly hurt the people that took her. Once the story begins, it quickly spirals into hardship for Joe as he realizes the depth and complexity of the conspiracy that his mission reveals to him.
Undoubtedly, the most enjoyable part of You Were Never Really Here is Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal of the main character, Joe. Emotionally and physically, Joaquin Phoenix makes an impenetrable wall of a man out of Joe. What makes Joaquin Phoenix’s performance as Joe so attractive is his beautifully even performance: Joe’s mission to absorb physical and emotional trauma and direct it back at the world defines him. He is nothing more, and he is nothing less.
A less competent actor would portray Joe as too over the top, too manic, too silly, or too morose, too depressed, too pretentious. Joe is too important to be acted poorly. He embodies a one-man death drive, maybe the death drive of Western society in the 21st century. As death drive is the repetition of trauma as contemporary experience rather than the memory of trauma as something of the past, so Joe absorbs as much trauma as he can and directs it back at the world to restore it to the place that it was before all of that trauma, including his own, existed in the first place. However, the film’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness. Despite its provocative subject matter, without Joe, You Were Never Really Here wouldn’t be about anything interesting at all.
Other than Joaquin Phoenix’s performance, nothing memorable happens in this film. None of the characters in You Were Never Really Here are more than either accessories or obstacles for Joaquin Phoenix’s character. They’re poorly characterized, and they appear on screen only at the service of Joe’s story arc. No one will walk away remembering anyone in this film other than Joaquin Phoenix’s character. Contrary to what the title You Were Never Really Here suggests, Joe is the only character that really seems to have been there in the first place.
Regarding the plot: while one of its themes may be futility, being about futility does not excuse the plot for being as futile as it is. The film begins in medias res, gives little to no context, minimal exposition, and by the end of the film, Joe certainly seems to have moved through an arc insofar as any series of events can be called an arc, but nothing appears to have changed or been accomplished. The audience walks away from You Were Never Really Here never gaining anything, learning anything, or sacrificing anything other than the cost of a DVD, download, or admittance to the theater.
The cinematography, sound, and music of You Were Never Really Here are all sufficient, but they never get so good as to forgive the inanity of the plot or the generality of its characters. All things considered, You Were Never Really Here is a stellar audition tape for Joaquin Phoenix at best and an ominous ideological product at worst.
The story about Joe single-handedly rescuing the victims of the worst crimes imaginable – pedophilia, murder, corruption, and others – and the conspiracies that Joe discovers after he becomes the reluctant hero of You Were Never Really Here reproduce very real anxieties that average people feel about the wealthy and powerful people that they coexist with, but resorting to conspiracies like clandestine pedophile rings to explain their anxiety deflects any real critique of the system that produces wealthy and powerful people and the anxiety that they cause in an average person.
Sadly, You Were Never Really Here is an example of art imitating life when it comes to the conspiratorial deflection of critique that it gives shape to. You Were Never Really Here debuted mere months after a man with a gun in hand invaded a pizza parlor on a mission to single-handedly take down a non-existent pedophile ring allegedly being run out of its basement according to fabricated conspiracies that originated in the darkest corners of the internet. You Were Never Really Here debuted just months after a few high-profile sexual assault cases came to light in which similar online peddlers of conspiracy and paranoia claimed that the political outsider and then-president of the United States Donald Trump secretly issued orders to investigate and arrest the perpetrators. Nothing about the film suggests that someone planned to coordinate its release with real-life events. Production probably started long before anyone remotely related to the project heard of the term “pizzagate.” Fear of the global economic and political elite in the 21st century makes sense, but mainstream Hollywood and even most independent production companies don’t have the imagination to realize why people feel afraid.
Capitalism and neoliberalism, the dominant ideological fixtures around the globe in the 21st century, failed, and their vanguards moved in quick to make a final profit at the expense of the average person. The conspiracy at large deflected in You Were Never Really Here and other seedy corners of the internet is not anything close to elaborate pedophile rings. The conspiracy is dirty water making children sick, depressed wages keeping families poor, police brutality breaking political dissent, crumbling infrastructure making neighbors feel insecure, and other nightmarish realities.
Without spoiling too much of the film, at the end of You Were Never Really Here, an actor asks after more than an hour of muddled trauma, futility, and conspiracy: “Where do we go now?” No one seems to know. The problems that Joe encountered throughout the plot led to more problems than solutions. The death drive that Joe undoubtedly represents can’t be sustained without self-destruction. The messy network of ineffectual characters and forgettable plot points went around and around again but seemed to go nowhere at all at the same time.
In the real world, chasing the conspiracies used to deflect real ideological critiques in the same way that the fictional Joe chases his fictional predators leaves the contradictions in the deflecting ideology as well as their disastrous consequences intact. The average person watching You Were Never Really Here might as well also ask, “Where do we go now?” Like Joe’s mission, the film itself, and the ideological fixtures of conspiracy and paranoia that it prop up, the average audience member may be better off standing up and walking away in pursuit of something better.