Film Critic Luis Freijo is quick to sing the praises of You Were Never Really Here, potentially this generation’s Taxi Driver
Sometimes, we just get lucky. Sometimes, independent filmmaking slips through the gaps left by superheroes, action flicks or brainless comedies to provide the possibility of a choice. Don’t get me wrong, those kinds of films have merit, but it is also necessary to go the cinema and watch a film that is going to challenge your ideas, make you think, and allow you to think an alternative experience to just thrill and fun. You Were Never Really Here is one of those films, a bold and daring puzzle that defies spectator notions of film-viewing while offering an articulated (and very much needed) political discourse. This review is written after a second viewing, and even a third would discover so many more details and ideas. The film is indeed that complex and interesting.
You Were Never Really Here tells the story of Joe, a former Marine who makes a living by rescuing kidnapped daughters of those who can pay his services. At the same time, he takes care of his old mother. His life changes, however, when Senator Votto hires him to save his daughter from a child prostitution network. It is possible to see a very clear relation between the film’s plot and Taxi Driver. Child abuse, institutional violence, the psychological consequences of war in military veterans, and a society whose elements are upside-down rotten. The powerful image of Joe storming the flat where the children are held, hammer in hand, resembles that of Travis Bickle shooting the equivalent place. Pathologic, deranged men, victims of their own wars that become ambiguous and twisted heroes, delivering a violent and extremely problematic form of social justice.
However, the aesthetic approach that Lynne Ramsay crafts as director departs drastically from Martin Scorsese’s classic. In this sense, the discourse is disorganised in Ramsay’s film through the relentless use of ellipsis. Nothing is explicitly explained in the film and, yet, nothing is missing. The lack of narrative exposition is balanced with specific, subjective flashbacks, or visual cues, in a very elegant and clever way. It is a bet for complexity and the respect for the spectators intelligence, and it succeeds. The sound editing and mixing is also intense and powerful, a key tool in order to immerse the audience in the violent and sick world of Joe’s subjectivity. Because that is what Ramsay’s strategies get: to represent the view on reality of an abused child that grew up to be a professional of violence with a taste for flirting with suicide.
You Were Never Really Here utilises then that subjectivity to tackle the issue of institutionalised violence and children upbringing as two inextricable aspects of U.S. society. The hammer with which Joe cracks the skulls of pedophiles and kidnappers bears that visual symbolism: between all the hammers that he finds in the convenience store, he buys the one with the label “Made in the U.S.A.”, the same kind of hammer that his father used to mistreat him and his mother, as it is revealed briefly but precisely in Joe’s memories. This tool speaks of a continuity of the education in violence, which is primarily exerted by the political institutions. Joe is a victim of it, and Nina, who has suffered the insufferable with only twelve years, will be, too. The film’s message is clear: violent adults come from victimised children, and it is impossible to break the circle because it is too deeply embedded in our social structures. The conflict between the child and the adult is, perhaps, best represented through Joe’s body. Joaquin Phoenix delivers a physical performance using his massively muscular body, a huge amount of hard meat able to bring hundreds of pounds of raw force on his enemies. That ability to kill brutally is contradicted by Joe’s emotional vulnerability, his tenderness toward his mother and the suicidal impulse that he explicitly shows during the film.
These conclusions come, as stated above, from the second viewing of the film. They were not apparent after the first, only a fascinating and violent puzzle waiting to be solved. I suspect that after a third viewing I would be writing a different piece. That fact alone should speak by itself about how well Lynne Ramsay has make problematic these vital problems for U.S. society. If bold filmmaking is still appealing to you, be brave enough to encounter this movie and have your mind blown.
Verdict: A complex and enigmatic film, You Were Never Really Here captures the essence of one of the most poignant problems in U.S. society through an aesthetic form that doesn’t make things easy for the audience. And yet, that is it’s most beautiful and appealing virtue. It is a must see.