If you haven’t seen the movie, don’t spoil it here — watch it first, then come back.
“You Were Never Really Here” is a brutal, slow-burn film by Lynne Ramsay, starring Joaquin Phoenix as Joe. It’s about a military veteran with a troubled past that extends beyond his service — when he’s not taking care of his elderly mother, he’s tracking down victims of human trafficking, and he shows no mercy for the traffickers he comes across. One particular case takes him down a dark, conspiratorial road that threatens to destroy him in both body and spirit.
First, I’d like to start by saying what this movie is not. Despite the description and images of a hero saving trafficking victims, this is not another installment of “Taken.” It’s not a heart-pounding, fun action thriller filled with stunts and ultra badassery. The trafficking story, Joe’s troubled childhood and difficult deployment with the military, the brutality Joe has witnessed toward the children he tries to save — this is a look inside the head of someone with extreme Post Traumatic Stress (PTS), and like many films that delve into the mind visually and audibly, it’s a bit more cerebral and brooding.
For example, the film is littered with suffocation motifs — be it a group of trafficking victims who have suffocated in a connex, Joe’s fixation with putting plastic over his head until he can barely stand it anymore, or immersing oneself underwater — PTS feels like that for a lot of people. In contrast to many post-war movies that are released these days, PTS doesn’t always manifest itself in dramatic flashbacks that have the protagonist wildly swinging a pistol around in the middle of the night. Sure, those people exist, but it more often manifests itself in a quiet, low rumbling beneath the surface that I feel like Phoenix portrayed very well.
“You Were Never Really Here” also illustrates another facet of PTS that is not often portrayed. Movies tend to show the most extreme cases of mental trauma where someone has lost all grip on reality — their minds are broken and will need a lot of professional help and a long, long road to recovery. However, many who suffer extreme trauma are inherently strong people, and they retain their strength even after the devastating event. That doesn’t mean they don’t struggle; it doesn’t mean they don’t feel like they’re suffocating or they are on the brink of insanity from time to time. But they are functioning members of society — they take care of their elderly mothers, they successfully conduct business, and they can have regular conversations with people without twitching or breaking into a cold sweat. I would argue this is far more common among veterans than the trope that is usually depicted in post-war films.
The film does an excellent job of not shoving exposition or backstory down the audience’s throat. The point isn’t to know all of Joe’s lifelong experience — you could read a Wikipedia article about child abuse and another about a soldier’s deployment if you want straight facts, but those facts are lifeless and contribute nothing to the film. The point is to feel what Joe is feeling during his harrowing journey forward, and those feelings are fractures, burnt and broken, alongside his memories.
Anyone walking into this movie expecting to feel the raging waves of justice and triumph in a world of human trafficking is going to be disappointed. This is a movie that takes you into a troubled mind, and it does it very well. It’s a quiet, but brutal, movie that I wouldn’t watch casually, and it had a profound effect on me.
Featured image courtesy of Amazon Studios, via IMDB.