The Fellowship Of Shared Trauma
When the world is sick
Can’t no one be well
But I dreamt we
Was all beautiful and strong
Before an image has even graced the screen, Lynne Ramsay’s masterful You Were Never Really Here has set an atonal and brutal mood. Brakes squeal, objects bluntly clash into one another… and that’s just the audio. We’re soon thrown into the fractured reality of Joaquin Phoenix’s Joe, a haunted veteran well-acquainted with violence who makes his living pulling young girls out of sex slavery for paying clients.
Uninterested in action or entertaining set pieces, Ramsay is rather painting a portrait of rampant brokenness that is unflinching and confidently stylish. Every tool in the arsenal of a filmmaker is utilized by Ramsay and her team to craft a profound sensory experience that absolutely benefits from the theatrical experience. The aforementioned sound design is bold, editing and camera work are all fully employed to pull us deeper into Joe’s off-kilter reality. Jonny Greenwood’s score is as pure and jumbled as Joe’s own mind. Joaquin Phoenix embodies his character with the ferocity and commitment we’ve come to appreciate from one of this generation’s finest actors. Ramsay’s screenplay, based on the book by Jonathan Ames, ratchets up the tension and draws us into Joe’s world with flawless pacing and intention. This is an uncompromised work of a filmmaker who absolutely cannot be ignored.
Joe’s line of work is quite specific. He’s not a hitman, per se, and we’re never given much of an idea of exactly how he got involved with this. But he gets girls and young women out of sex slavery… generally wielding a hammer in the process. He’s a killer, his trade illegal… and yet the freeing of young women from slavery is about the most inarguably noble quest available to modern man. It seems almost inevitable that a suicidal, PTSD-riddled, trained killer with some kind of deeply buried innate goodness within himself would gravitate to a job like this. But You Were Never Really Here doesn’t stop with Joe in its exploration of fallen and fractured souls. Ramsay’s entire story shows us an utterly broken world where domestic life and government are all hollowed out institutions. Joe’s violent rescues, and his tender-if-addled care for his own aging mother, are the only morally clear actions in this PTSD-soaked reality.
To be clear, it seems You Were Never Really Here is indeed a redemptive tale, albeit an exceedingly dark one. The title is no mere abstraction. Through editing and character interaction, Joe’s physical reality and existence seem in question throughout. One minute he’s drinking water at the water fountain, the next he’s gone, the water continuing to pour. It’s as though through the title and style of the film, we’re forced to reckon with the value of a human life and whether one can truly come and go from this mortal coil without ever having truly existed in the first place. We see in violent images that Joe’s childhood was filled with abuse. We see inside Joe’s mind that he’s seen unspeakable violence in warfare. He’s more or less a ghost traipsing through a world that’s as shattered as he is. But there are those young lives in question. Young lives that he’s freeing forever from the bonds of slavery, even if they’ll carry those wounds forever… just like Joe does. And yet nothing can alter the reality that Joe has come in and rescued their physical bodies from the fate they were resigned to.
Then, somehow, things get worse. Joe is double crossed, bodies pile up, and one little girl is caught up in the middle. Joe will save that girl if it’s the last thing he does. It’s unclear if Joe’s motivations are righteous, or filled with vengeance, or if he simply needs to rescue her in order to feel any last vestige of connection to the human race. His desperate search to rescue this girl doesn’t play like a dramatic Hollywood blockbuster; we experience it all through Joe’s extremely limited perspective. It’s tense and violent without ever veering into “entertainment”.
And then we’re in a diner. Joe and the young girl are the only two still breathing. They’re drinking milkshakes. They’ve found a kinship in their shared trauma. And we’re left to wonder: Is the fellowship of shared trauma perhaps enough of a foundation on which to build something new?
And I’m Out.